18th Century Law Used to Force Manufacturers to Unlock Customers’ Phones for Law Enforcement

Faris Algosaibi / Flickr
Faris Algosaibi / Flickr

US officials are using an 18th century law to request tech companies to unlock customer’s mobile phones for law enforcement access.

According to the ACLU, last month the government attempted to obtain an order which would force Apple to unlock and make private information stored on their customers’ personal and password-protected devices available for the state’s use. This was attempted using the 226-year old law known as the All Writs Act.

Apple fought back and won the court battle, but after submitting a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, the ACLU learned that not all is as well and merry as it seems.

Over 70 cases have reportedly been abused in a similar manner, but hardly any information about them exists.

The ACLU states in a recent blog post:

The All Writs Act permits a court to issue an order to give effect to a prior lawful order or an existing grant of authority, and has been used for such things as ordering a prisoner be brought before a court. The Act does not allow a court to invest law enforcement with investigative tools that Congress has not authorized — like the extraordinary and unconstitutional conscription of a third party into obtaining information the third party does not possess or control.

Although over 70 cases are said to have been manipulated by twisting the historic law, very little to no information about these cases exists for public eyes. This has lead the ACLU to file yet another FOIA request in order to try and uncover a possibly secret and invasive manipulation of justice that is being carefully covered up by lack of information.

“The government has sought individual, often sealed orders in unrelated cases, creating a patchwork of public and non-public documents that are difficult to track down and identify,” states the ACLU. “When we submitted our amicus brief, we were aware of only three cases in which the government had applied for and obtained an order under the All Writs Act to compel a third party to unlock a mobile device. In its brief, the government cited three additional cases […] But for each case the government cited […] the public had little or no notice that the government sought and obtained such an order. Even for the six known cases, many documents — including the government’s reasons and justifications — remain under seal.”

It is a worrying discovery that something as invasive as this could be happening secretly in a climate where debates are constantly ongoing about government backdoor-access and secret digital surveillance. The fact that the state is conducting these orders regardless proves a terrifying indication as to the route they’re planning to take in an age where our personal information is already constantly at risk from hackers, criminals, and poorly developed technology.

Charlie Nash is a libertarian writer, memeologist, and child prodigy. When he is not writing, he can usually be found chilling at the Korova Milk Bar, mingling with the infamous. You can follow him on Twitter at @MrNashington.