Google Receiving Government Requests to Unlock Android Phones

Apple wasn't the only company getting such requests. An ACLU inquiry found Google also got similar inquiries, according to a report.

phone unlocking

Google also has been facing inquiries from the U.S. government to help unlock Android cellphones as part of criminal investigations, mirroring government actions that have sought similar help from Apple in unlocking its iPhones.

The Google requests were found through an investigation by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which discovered that Apple and Google have been asked by the government 63 times for help in unlocking cellphone data, according to a March 30 story by The Wall Street Journal.

The requests with Google and Apple were made by the government as it sought court orders under a 1789 law, the All Writs Act, to force the companies to help unlock the phones, the story reported. The results of those requests is not known, based on the ACLU investigation.

"However, federal prosecutors have said until late last year, when Apple began resisting such efforts, it was routine for judges to approve such requests from federal prosecutors," the story continued. "And those requests aren't a new phenomenon—the cases stretch back to 2008."

The Google data requests were revealed on the heels of the very public legal fight that recently occurred between the Department of Justice (DoJ), the FBI and Apple as the government sought to compel Apple to unlock the iPhone that belonged to one of the terrorists who killed 14 people and injured 22 others in an attack in San Bernardino, Calif., last December. The government wanted Apple's help in accessing and reading the encrypted data on the iPhone, but Apple refused, citing privacy laws.

That case apparently became moot when the FBI announced earlier this week that it had accessed the information on the iPhone without Apple's help. The FBI has since filed papers to drop its fight against Apple in that case.

It is the first time that information has been revealed about phone unlocking requests by the government through Google, the story reported. "Most, but not all, of the 63 cases identified by the ACLU involve Apple," the story continued.

In response to an eWEEK email inquiry about the ACLU investigation, a Google spokesman said the company "carefully scrutinize[s] subpoenas and court orders to make sure they meet both the letter and spirit of the law. 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."

The DoJ sought Apple's help to open the iPhone used by Syed Rizwan Farook, a gunman in the Dec. 2 terrorist attack in San Bernardino, Calif. For five weeks, the case had become increasingly contentious because Apple cited long-term data privacy issues in refusing to aid law enforcement personnel.

An ACLU spokesperson did not immediately respond to an eWEEK inquiry for comment about its investigation.

The recent end of the government's pursuit of Apple in the latest iPhone unlocking case came after Apple CEO Tim Cook steadfastly refused to order his engineers to create a new software backdoor to access the iPhone, according to an earlier eWEEK story. The FBI wanted to eye the phone's data to determine whether other people were involved in the shootings and if subsequent events were planned.