Apple, Google have been asked to decrypt phones at least 63 times

Posted Apr 1, 2016 by James Walker
The U.S. government has attempted to force Apple, Google and other smartphone manufacturers to unlock at least 63 devices. The FBI is demanding access to a lot more than one phone, despite its recent claims in the Apple case.
The US Justice Department files a request to postpone a crucial hearing with Apple on accessing the ...
The US Justice Department files a request to postpone a crucial hearing with Apple on accessing the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino attackers, citing new leads in the case
Philippe Huguen, AFP/File
As Sophos' Naked Security blog reports, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has uncovered 63 "confirmed cases" of the U.S. Justice Department using the law to force tech companies to help it unlock devices. The government is using the All Writs Act as the basis for the orders, an old piece of legislation that many see unfit for use.
The cases show that the All Writs Act is now being frequently utilised by the U.S. government. In the recent high-profile case between Apple and the FBI, the government had claimed that unlocking the iPhone of San Bernardino shooter Syed Rizwan Farook was an exceptional case and it did not intend to make regular use of the act.
It is unclear how many of the 63 attempts have been ruled in the government's favour. They mostly concern investigations into drug crimes in which the FBI believes information may be contained on a suspect's phone. Other crimes include sexual offences and child pornography.
The FBI's lawsuit against Apple was suddenly terminated earlier this week. The FBI unexpectedly cracked the encryption on the iPhone 5C on its own, leaving Apple to question the nature of the technique it used. The FBI has already begun to use its method to decrypt other phones, leaving Apple to investigate how law enforcement has entered its iOS software.
The government has other, potentially easier ways to unlock newer iPhones. Forbes recently discovered a case where the Los Angeles Police Department managed to obtain a warrant that could force a suspect to place their finger on their phone, unlocking it with the Touch ID sensor. The U.S. government appears to be able to force people to use their phone's fingerprint sensor by placing the sensor against a finger. The implications of the legislature remain unclear.
With the FBI now apparently able to unlock phones on its own, the meaning of the various laws has been called into question. In future cases, the government may not be required to force tech companies to act against their will, instead using their newfound hacking skills to decrypt devices. The FBI has refused to detail its methods, leaving security researchers and tech companies wondering if the government has discovered a flaw that they aren't aware of.
What is clear is the All Writs Act is being used far more frequently than the FBI is publicly advertising. At least another 13 phones are already the subject of court orders for unlocking, according to ACLU's research Apple recently identified an additional twelve devices with pending court cases, demonstrating how widespread usage of the act has become.