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The Feds Ordered Google to Help Unlock Phones, and Google Didn’t Fight Back

Image: Alex Cranz
Image: Alex Cranz

The government used the All Writs Act in a failed attempt to make Apple write software that would weaken its security to help unlock a seized iPhone. That case was vacated this month, after a dramatic public battle. But the government is still using the All Writs Act to corral tech companies, including Google.


The American Civil Liberties Union just released an interactive map of 63 cases where either Apple or Google received All Writs Act orders to assist in unlocking phones. ACLU media strategist Josh Bell told Gizmodo that Google accounts for 10 percent of these cases, which range from drug trafficking to the distribution of child pornography.

You can see them all by scrolling over the map:


“We carefully scrutinize subpoenas and court orders to make sure they meet both the letter and spirit of the law,” a Google spokesman told the Wall Street Journal. “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.”

Apple had a compelling case for why the All Writs Act was improperly used in San Bernardino, because All Writs cannot be used if it places an undue burden on a third party. The company argued that weakening the security of iOS devices was an undue burden in the San Bernardino shooter phone case. It appears Google is not taking issue because the search giant not being asked to create software. The burden is lighter.

Screenshot from one of the Google court cases
Screenshot from one of the Google court cases

The All Writs Act was not intended to become a go-to statute for making tech companies comply to government demands. As the Apple case unfolded, the tendency of the feds to use the centuries-old law as a workaround in technology cases became apparent and correctly drew widespread scrutiny. In a separate New York drug-related case where the government is still attempting to compel Apple to help unlock a seized phone, Judge James Orenstein recently ruled that the government’s current interpretation of the All Writs Act would “cast doubt on the AWA’s constitutionality if adopted.”

Google isn’t putting up a fight, but that doesn’t mean that the government is using the All Writs Act correctly. Based on its previous statements and an amicus brief supporting Apple, however, Google will object if the government uses the All Writs Act to force it into weakening its own security. And that may happen. While it appears Google is able to reset the passcode on some Android devices, the company is adopting end-to-end encryption and stronger security measures on its newer devices. This could be the prelude to another battle.


[Wall Street Journal]

Senior writer at Gizmodo.

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This makes sense. No one was arguing that the AWA was improper on its face. Apple has a history of complying, and if Google maintained the ability to access locked phones, they would be forced to comply.

The article itself seems clear on this. The headline doesn’t quite match its content in spirit though. It implies Apple always fights back, or that Google should have.

Or we can all whistle and twiddle thumbs and swear that there’s no reasonable way we should read it that way, because come on how could you, right?