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Unsealed court order shows Apple was ordered to unlock a phone in Boston too

Susie Ochs | April 11, 2016
The ACLU is pushing for more transparency in the government's use of the All Writs Act to compel Apple and Google to unlock smartphones for law enforcement.

But the order also clarifies that encrypted data is enough: “To the extent that data on the device is encrypted, Apple may provide a copy of the encrypted data to law enforcement but Apple is not required to attempt to decrypt, or otherwise enable law enforcement’s attempts to access any encrypted data.”

Apple’s own documentation describing how law enforcement can request its assistance (PDF) points out that since iOS 8 and iOS 9 decrypt all the data on the phone by default as soon as you set a passcode, Apple can’t help: “The files to be extracted are protected by an encryption key that is tied to the user’s passcode, which Apple does not possess.”

How is this different?

In the two most public All Writs Act cases, the FBI withdrew its request in the San Bernardino case, claiming a third party sold them a tool to break into an iPhone 5c running iOS 9. In another case in Brooklyn, the government still wants Apple’s help extracting data from a meth dealer’s iPhone 5s running iOS 7.

In the Brooklyn case, Apple does have a method to extract the data from the iOS 7 phone without needing the passcode. But Apple is resisting anyway on the grounds that the government doesn’t need Apple for this—plenty of third-party security firms could handle the same task—and because Apple’s lawyers feel like these All Writs Act warrants are an overreach that’s more about setting a legal precedent than getting into any single device.


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