The Justice Department is pursuing about a dozen undisclosed court orders to force Apple to help authorities access locked iPhones, in addition to the high-profile case involving the phone of one of the San Bernardino shooters, The Wall Street Journal reported late Monday night.
In at least some cases, the government wants to use an 18th-century law called the All Writs Act to compel Apple to disable a key security feature, the report said.
A letter filed by prosecutors in a case over a locked iPhone in New York also indicates that there are other cases in which the government has obtained similar court orders, but it doesn't go into more detail.
"In most of the cases, rather than challenge the orders in court, Apple simply deferred complying with them, without seeking appropriate judicial relief," the prosecutors wrote.
The revelation appears to bolster critics’ charges that compliance with the order involving Syed Farook's phone would set a dangerous precedent by broadening the scope of the All Writs Act. The 1789 law allows federal judges to compel others to help the government perform its duties so long as requests are not "unduly burdensome."
“The implications of the government’s demands are chilling. If the government can use the All Writs Act to make it easier to unlock your iPhone, it would have the power to reach into anyone’s device to capture their data,” Apple CEO Tim Cook warned last week when he announced the company would be opposing the court order.
The technology industry has largely backed that assessment, warning that forcing Apple to deliberately weaken the security of its flagship product is an overreach that could be used to justify subsequent cases.
“If Apple can be compelled to create a digitally defective product for the government in this case, it can be compelled in any case to engineer a similar defect to allow the government to exploit the device, and so can every other manufacturer of every other device,” Greg Nojeim, senior counsel at digital rights advocate the Center for Democracy and Technology, told The Hill last week.
FBI director James Comey has pushed back, insisting that the legal issue is “quite narrow.”
“The San Bernardino litigation isn't about trying to set a precedent or send any kind of message,” Comey said in an op-ed published Sunday. “It is about the victims and justice.”
But the tech industry has long been at loggerheads with the FBI, which has repeatedly sought to claim some form of guaranteed access into encrypted devices.
The agency is concerned that impenetrable encryption — which in some cases cannot be broken even by the manufacturer — is allowing terrorists and other criminals to communicate beyond the grasp of law enforcement.
Technologists and privacy advocates argue that any form of guaranteed access introduces weaknesses into encryption systems that would likely be exploited by criminals, not just the FBI.
The agency sought a work-around in the court order, which does not directly demand that Apple decrypt Farook’s iPhone 5c. Instead, the order asks Apple to create software that would disable a failsafe that triggers the phone to wipe its own memory if an incorrect password is inputted 10 times in a row.
Apple — backed up by multiple technology groups and privacy advocates — has characterized such software as a “backdoor” that it considers “too dangerous to create.”
Comey insisted in Sunday's op-ed that law enforcement agencies "simply want the chance, with a search warrant, to try to guess the terrorist's passcode without the phone essentially self-destructing and without it taking a decade to guess correctly.”
“That's it,” he continued. “We don't want to break anyone's encryption or set a master key loose on the land.”