Feds have asked Google for help breaking into phones, too

It's not just iPhones. The government has asked the search giant to help it get into phones running Google's Android mobile software.

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Richard Nieva
2 min read

Google has been asked by the federal government to help it break into Android phones.

Juan Garzón/CNET

Apple isn't the only company the government has tapped for help getting data from phones.

The feds have asked both Google and Apple to help it break into smartphones at least 63 times, according to data published Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union. About 90 percent of the requests were directed toward Apple, while 10 percent involved requests for Google to unlock phones running its Android mobile operating system, the ACLU said.

Apple's tangles with the FBI are well-known, thanks to a high-profile battle over data on an

used by a shooter in December's San Bernardino, California, attack. In that case, the Department of Justice invoked a 1789 law called the All Writs Act to demand Apple create new software to help it unlock the iPhone used by Syed Farook. In the end, the FBI broke into the phone without Apple's help.

A host of technology giants, including Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft and Google filed a friend-of-the-court brief, also known as an amicus, earlier this month throwing their support behind Apple.

Until now, Google's dealings with the government over smartphone data have been out of the spotlight. It's unclear how many times each company complied with the requests.

"We carefully scrutinize subpoenas and court orders to make sure they meet both the letter and spirit of the law," a Google spokesperson said. "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 cases in which the government asked for help ranged from child pornography to drug cases, according to court briefings compiled by the ACLU.

One Google-directed request in California last year asked the company to help breaking into handsets made by manufacturers Kyocera and Alcatel for a drug investigation. Google doesn't make phone hardware like Apple does, but instead lets other hardware makers use its software on their devices.

The ACLU said the government has been using the All Writs Act, a 227-year-old law that gives federal courts the power to issue orders, to help unlock consumers' devices since 2008.