The Washington Post reports: The U.S. government and Apple are locked in a legal battle over unlocking an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters. But a new court order is throwing a law that dates to the days of the founding fathers into a high-tech debate over digital security.
On Tuesday, a U.S. magistrate judge in California ordered Apple to provide “reasonable technical assistance” to the government as it tries to bypass security features built into its products based on an interpretation of the “All Writs Act.”
The original form of that statute dates to the Judiciary Act of 1789, centuries before the iPhone was a twinkle in Steve Jobs’s eye. In its current form, the law gives federal courts the power to “issue all writs necessary or appropriate in aid of their respective jurisdictions and agreeable to the usages and principles of law.”
Basically, it’s “a very short, cryptic statute” that gives the courts “all sorts of incidental powers” to require things not specifically covered by other laws, according to Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at American University.
In the past, the act has been used to compel non-parties — like service providers of tech companies — to help in criminal investigations, Vladeck said. But that help has typically been limited to straightforward requests, like activating or turning off particular features and using systems that are already in place, he said.
The new order is different: It tells Apple to help the government by creating an entirely new software to help investigators bypasses security features. “That requires Apple to go much further than any company has ever been required to go in one of these cases,” said Vladeck. [Continue reading…]
Last October, Jennifer Granick and Riana Pfefferkorn wrote: Under the government’s interpretation of the All Writs Act, anyone who makes software could be dragooned into assisting the government in investigating users of the software. If the court adopts this view, it would give investigators immense power. The quotidian aspects of our lives increasingly involve software (from our cars to our TVs to our health to our home appliances), and most of that software is arguably licensed, not bought. Conscripting software makers to collect information on us would afford the government access to the most intimate information about us, on the strength of some words in some license agreements that people never read. (And no wonder: The iPhone’s EULA came to over 300 pages when the government filed it as an exhibit to its brief.)
The government’s brief does not acknowledge the sweeping implications of its arguments. It tries to portray its requested unlocking order as narrow and modest, because it “would not require Apple to make any changes to its software or hardware, … [or] to introduce any new ability to access data on its phones. It would simply require Apple to use its existing capability to bypass the passcode on a passcode-locked iOS 7 phone[.]” But that undersells the implications of the legal argument the government is making: that anything a company already can do, it could be compelled to do under the All Writs Act in order to assist law enforcement. [Continue reading…]