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Communications of the ACM

Letters to the Editor

Why All Writs Is a Trojan Horse

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Citing the All Writs act as a way to give the government the power to compel companies to redesign or reimplement their electronic products to government specifications represents a threat to everyone's civil liberties. This U.S. federal statute, first adopted in 1789 and updated in 1911, today plays a pivotal role in the FBI vs. Apple legal battle in which a federal magistrate in California ordered Apple, at the behest of the FBI, to create and sign a new version of Apple's iOS operating system. In a related court filing, the Justice Department said all information on an electronic device must be accessible to police under court warrant. Does that mean the government has the authority to obtain a court order to compel Apple to redesign its next generation of iPhones so it can break into and read any encrypted information? Moreover, can it prohibit importation of, say, Samsung smartphones for which Samsung has no ability to break in or read encrypted information?

Meanwhile, the Internet of Things (IoT) is becoming pervasive in every aspect of our lives, including insulin pumps, heart pacemakers, TVs with microphones, home video cameras, and even brain implants if a new DARPA project is successful. The Justice Department has proposed security agencies be given the authority to secretly access and take control of any IoT device when ordered by a court or by the executive branch. However, this would make it difficult for a court or even for Congress to prevent them from accessing and controlling large numbers of devices, potentially abusing their court- or executive branch-authorized surveillance authority.


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