US asked Google to unlock phones 9 times since 2012

US asked Google to unlock phones, too

Fresh off the back of the tussles between U.S. law enforcement and Apple, new research has revealed that search giant Google has been asked several times since 2012 to help unlock Android phones.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found 63 cases where the government had used the 1789 All Writs Act to ask Apple and Google help unlock data on phones.

While the majority of these cases across the U.S. involved Apple, there were nine instances where Google was asked by law authorities for help.

The study by ACLU comes after a fierce legal tussle between the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Apple. Last month, a federal judge asked Apple to help the FBI unlock an iPhone belonging to Syed Farook, who was responsible for the shootings in San Bernardino in December which left 14 people dead. Apple declined to assist the authorities in this instant and but the U.S. Justice Department managed to access the device anyway with the help of a third party which it declined to name.

What's next in the privacy debate

It's unclear what the outcome of the cases unearthed by the ACLU were, but it highlights that law enforcement has been asking tech companies for help for eight years. It appears the firms have been willing to help law enforcement too. Prosecutors have said that Apple has helped unlock phones 70 times since 2008. The uncovering of the 63 cases however is the first major look at government requests to Google, which owns the Android operating system installed on the majority of the world's smartphones.

"We carefully scrutinize subpoenas and court orders to make sure they meet both the letter and spirit of the law," a Google spokesperson said in a statement.

"However, we've never received an All Writs Act order like the one Apple recently fought that demands we build new tools that actively compromise our products' security. As our amicus shows, we would strongly object to such an order."

While Apple has been known to comply with such requests in the past, the latest battle with the government was a step too far for the technology giant. When Apple was asked last month by authorities for its assistance, it said that the request would lead it to create a "backdoor" into its software and it would set a "dangerous precedent" for future cases.

One court document from Califronia in 2015 shows how authorities asked Google to unlock an Alcatel One Touch device and Kyocera phone in relation to a drug case. The document requested that Google "if necessary, must reactive Google accounts associated with the Android Devices for the limited purpose of complying with the search warrant". Other terms included proving a single password reset for the phones and giving it to law enforcement. The warrant did say that Google should reset the password of the account once the authorities were finished so no officer could access it again however.

Most of the orders related to drug cases in which officers were trying to access devices of people who were in possession of drugs. Warrants requesting help from Google were filed in Oregon, California, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Alabama and North Carolina. The earliest one was in Oregon in 2012.