DOJ wants Apple to help unlock iPhones

The Department of Justice is harkening back to an 18th-century federal law to get access to encrypted iPhones, according to court documents published Monday by ArsTechnica.

The arcane law, the All Writs Act, gives courts the authority to issue orders compelling a person or company to aid an investigation. It’s been used to help officials execute a warrant that has already been granted.

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The DOJ is invoking the law in cases where bolstered smartphone encryption has kept officials from examining a phone’s contents. Judges have mostly agreed the companies should help the government, to an extent.

Such requests and orders are not new, according to computer scientist Jonathan Mayer, a Stanford Ph.D. candidate who worked with California’s Justice Department to create its mobile app privacy policies. Both Apple and Google have received and complied with similar orders in the past, he said.

But the DOJ requests and subsequent orders are rarely published.   

In its request, the DOJ cited a Supreme Court decision from the ’70s that upheld a district court’s authority to force a telephone company to install a surveillance device that recorded numbers dialed from a phone.

“Consequently, this Court has the authority to order Apple, Inc., to use any capabilities it may have to unlock the iPhone,” said Garth Hire, a DOJ assistant attorney, in the request. “Apple has routinely complied with such orders.”

Without the company’s help, the investigation could stall, Hire argued.

“Examination of the iPhone without Apple’s assistance, if it is possible at all, would require significant resources and may harm the iPhone,” he said.

The judge mostly agreed, Ars reported. Apple was ordered to “provide reasonable technical assistance to enable law enforcement agents to obtain access to unencrypted data.”

But the company does not have to go all-out.

“It is further ordered that, to the extent that data on the iOS device is encrypted, Apple may provide a copy of the encrypted data to law enforcement but Apple is not required to attempt to decrypt, or otherwise enable law enforcement’s attempts to access any encrypted data,” the judge said.

Orders in two other cases this year contained similar language. One involved Apple, while the other was directed to an unnamed phone manufacturer.

Federal law enforcement officials and Apple have been at odds recently over Apple’s encryption.

Apple revealed in September its new operating system would lock out everyone — Apple included — from accessing its data. Consumers have demanded increased security since former government contractor Edward Snowden revealed a number of government surveillance programs that collected data on Americans.

The FBI has waged a public campaign in response about the dangers of Apple’s decision. Officials argue the encryption will prohibit law enforcement from doing its job. The bureau even told Apple officials “a child will die” if it can’t access data with a warrant.