Google Has Also Been Ordered to Help Unlock Phones

Google has been repeatedly ordered to help federal agents open cellphones, according to court records in seven states that show Apple Inc. isn't the only company facing government demands at the center of a fierce debate over privacy and security.

The American Civil Liberties Union found 63 instances where the government sought a court order under a 1789 law called the All Writs Act to compel Apple and Google to help them access data on locked phones.

The outcome of those cases aren't clear. However, federal prosecutors have said until late last year, when Apple began resisting such efforts, it was routine for judges to approve such requests from federal prosecutors. And those requests aren't a new phenomenon--the cases stretch back to 2008.

Details of the cases come days after the Justice Department announced it cracked into a terrorist's cellphone, ending a high-profile court battle over whether Apple can be forced by a court to help the Federal Bureau of Investigation bypass the phone's passcode security system.

The overall numbers aren't surprising, since prosecutors have previously said Apple provided assistance in such cases more than 70 times. Most, but not all, of the 63 cases identified by the ACLU involve Apple. But the figures offer the first accounting of how the government has also sought such orders for Google to help investigators pull data off locked smartphones, typically by having the company reset the devices' passwords.

"We carefully scrutinize subpoenas and court orders to make sure they meet both the letter and spirit of the law," a Google spokesman said. "However, we've never received an All Writs Act order like the one Apple recently fought that demands we build new tools that actively compromise our products' security.... We would strongly object to such an order."

The Justice Department has defended the practice of getting court orders to compel assistance from technology companies as a routine and necessary part of law enforcement work when there is no other way for agents to access a suspect's phone that might hold important criminal evidence. Privacy groups argue the government is misusing an outdated law to claim authority not granted by Congress.

A court filing last month from Apple indicated there were at least a dozen active cases in which the Justice Department was pursuing similar orders involving Apple.

In one of the Google cases, a 2015 drug investigation in California, prosecutors got a court order compelling Google to provide assistance in getting data from an Alcatel cellphone and a Kyocera cellphone, both of which were using Google's Android operating system, according to court records.

The ACLU found Google was also the subject of All Writs Act cases in Alabama, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon and South Dakota.

Some of the court records show judges signed court orders compelling Google to help investigators, though the records don't indicate whether Google complied. In one such case, a 2015 child pornography investigation in Sacramento, Calif., Google was ordered to reset the password of a Samsung telephone so investigators could search its contents. Other court dockets are unclear as to the outcome of the prosecutors' request.

The technical issues are different for Alphabet Inc.'s Google than for Apple, partly because Google makes the Android cellphone operating system, but that system runs on phones manufactured by others, while Apple makes both phones and their operating software.

The Google cases involve investigations by the FBI, the Secret Service, the Homeland Security Department, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Land Management.

Apple's disputed with the Justice Department in the terrorism case centered on the work phone of Syed Rizwan Farook, who along with his wife killed 14 people and injured 22 others in a Dec. 2 attack on a holiday party of San Bernardino, Calif., county employees.

Just as the two sides were due to face off in court last week, federal officials said they had found a new potential technique to get data from the phone without Apple's help. On Monday, the Justice Department announced the method had worked and they were dropping the case against Apple.

The larger legal issue of privacy and security in the digital age remain unresolved, awaiting the next courtroom standoff on the issue. The focus of that fight may now shift to Brooklyn, N.Y., where a federal magistrate judge recently ruled that the Justice Department didn't have the legal authority to force Apple to help them open an iPhone seized in a drug case.

The Justice Department has asked a higher judge to review that finding, and more court filings are expected in that case in coming weeks.

Write to Devlin Barrett at

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