The Government Has Used the All Writs Act on Android Phones At Least 9 Times

Five different agencies have asked Google for help using the All Writs Act.

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Mar 30 2016, 12:58pm

Image: Daniel Sancho/Flickr

The federal government has asked Google for technical assistance to help it break into a locked Android smartphone using the All Writs Act at least nine times, according to publicly available court documents discovered by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The ACLU released the Google court documents along with 54 court cases in which the feds asked Apple for assistance obtaining information from a locked iPhone. The revelations show that many agencies have been using the All Writs Act, a 1789 law that the government says allows it to compel third party companies to help it in criminal investigations.

The law was at the heart of a recent legal battle between the FBI and Apple in San Bernardino, and this is the first time it's been confirmed that Google has also received these sorts of orders. The FBI and Apple have an ongoing legal battle over the issue in New York.

The cases all appear to be closed, are in seven separate states, and involve the Department of Homeland Security, FBI, Customs and Border Patrol, the Secret Service, and, interestingly, the Bureau of Land Management. Google is believed to have complied with all of the orders, however the company tells Motherboard that none of the cases required the company to write new software for the federal government.

"We carefully scrutinize subpoenas and court orders to make sure they meet both the letter and spirit of the law," a Google spokesperson told me. "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. As our amicus shows, we would strongly object to such an order."

Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and several other major tech companies filed a legal brief in support of Apple in its recently-ended legal battle with the federal government, which said the companies are "united in their view that the government's order to Apple exceeds the bounds of existing law and, when applied more broadly, will harm Americans' security in the long run."

In many of the cases found by the ACLU on publicly available law databases, Google was required to reset the password of an Android smartphone so that the government could gain access. Passcode and password resets of this kind are not possible on iPhones.

Google's switch to default device encryption happened only with the Marshmallow version of Android, which was released in October but is still not available for many Android phones. Android phones are notoriously slow to get Google's security and software updates; just 2.3 percent of Android phones are running Marshmallow, according to Google. It's hard to say for sure, but it seems possible that Google has dealt with fewer of these orders because most of the Android phones out in the wild are likely susceptible to the federal government's forensic tools.

Google has been asked to assist the Bureau of Land Management in the investigation of an alleged marijuana grow operation in Oregon; the Department of Homeland Security in an investigation of an alleged child pornographer in California; the FBI in the investigation of an alleged cocaine dealer named "Grumpy" in New Mexico; and the Secret Service in an unknown case in North Carolina. It has been asked to reset the passwords or bypass the lock screens of Samsung, Kyocera, Alcatel, and HTC phones, among several other unidentified devices.

"These cases show that the government has an interest in getting this kind of assistance from tech companies in a wide variety of cases," ACLU attorney Esha Bhandari told me. "The government and law enforcement in general have an interest in using the All Writs Act in a wide variety of investigations, including criminal investigations."

Court documents for the cases are available here:

https://www.aclu.org/sites/default/files/field_document/Or_1-12-mc-305.pdf

https://www.aclu.org/sites/default/files/field_document/ED_Cal_2-15-sw-00568.pdf

https://www.aclu.org/sites/default/files/field_document/ED_Cal_1-15-sw-00073.pdf

https://www.aclu.org/sites/default/files/field_document/ED_Cal_2-15-sw-00602.pdf

https://www.aclu.org/sites/default/files/field_document/NM_1-13-mr-115.pdf

https://www.aclu.org/sites/default/files/field_document/SD_4-14-mc-97.pdf

https://www.aclu.org/sites/default/files/field_document/ND%203-12-mj-132.pdf

https://www.aclu.org/sites/default/files/field_document/NM_1-13-mr-115_0.pdf