Report: Federal government used All Writs Act in three Arizona technology cases

Apr 1, 2016, 8:00 AM
(AP Photo)...
(AP Photo)
(AP Photo)

PHOENIX — The federal government has used a broad statute that allows courts to pressure technology companies to aid in uncovering data on locked smartphones in several cases in Arizona, a recent study found.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, Apple has employed the 1789 All Writs Act to access information on locked smartphones in at least three cases in Arizona.

The act gives federal courts the authority to “issue all writs necessary or appropriate in aid of their respective jurisdictions and agreeable to the usages and principles of law.”

More simply, it allows a judge to file any type of order even when there is no clear Congressional mandate to do so.

The federal government has also used the act to force Google to assist in cases in which it needs to uncover information on a locked device.

Unlocking technology has been a major headline in the news recently, after Apple and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have gone head-to-head in court over uncovering information on the locked iPhone of one of the San Bernardino mass shooters.

The federal government ordered Apple to create a new software that would override an “auto-wipe” feature which is designed to kick in after anyone makes 10 wrong attempts at guessing the iPhone’s passcode.

Once that feature is activated, it renders all the data on the phone permanently unreadable.

Apple fired back, saying it could create the software the government wanted but it argued vehemently that doing so would be a bad idea. The company also said it had never been order to do this before.

Judge Sheri Pym, who issued the order, cited the All Writs Act as part of her decision.

Federal authorities insisted they were only asking for Apple’s help in a single case, although prosecutors nationwide have said they wanted similar assistance in other cases where iPhones have been seized.

The government dropped the case Monday, after announcing it had broken into the phone without Apple’s help.

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery announced the department sided with the federal government in the battle, saying he sympathizes with citizens who believe their personal privacy trumps what the FBI is trying to do, but believes information on locked phones could be a matter of public safety.

“I’m not ignorant of the privacy issue, but I also don’t believe that we can use that to justify creating an environment in which criminals and criminal organizations act with impunity, and without the ability to hold them accountable,” he said in an interview with KTAR News 92.3 FM’s Bruce St. James and Pamela Hughes.

In protest, Montgomery said his office will no longer provide iPhones to new employees and will not offer replacements or upgrades for existing employees.

The ACLU found at least 63 cases in which the government has used the All Writs Act in order to access information on a locked technological device. The majority of the cases involved drug crimes, according to USA Today.

The Associated Press contributed to the report. 

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Report: Federal government used All Writs Act in three Arizona technology cases