ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
When we first learned about the federal court order for Apple to unlock the iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino attackers, this phrase caught our attention.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The All Writs Act of 1789.
SHAPIRO: The case hinges on the interpretation of 227-year-old law. Ahmed Ghappour explains.
AHMED GHAPPOUR: So, essentially, here you have a court using a catchall statute from the 18th century to compel a technology company in the 21st century to assist law enforcement by designing custom software to access encrypted data on the device.
SIEGEL: Ghappour is a professor at the University of California Hastings College of Law. He specializes in the intersection of law, security and technology. He says, if there isn't already a law or statute that deals with a specific issue, judges can evoke the All Writs Act of 1789. A writ, spelt W-R-I-T, is a court order.
GHAPPOUR: It's essentially designed to fill in the gaps between legislature.
SHAPIRO: So the federal government has been using this centuries-old act to apply to a wide range of cases.
GHAPPOUR: The All Writs Act has been used to compel DNA samples. It's been used to compel handwriting exemplars. It's been used in the pen register context well before there was any statute that spoke on the issue of pen registers. And so, in that way, it is, by and large, a catchall statute.
SHAPIRO: A pen register is a throwback to landline telephones. It was used to log every number called from a phone line.
SIEGEL: In the 1970s, a case went to the Supreme Court after a federal court in New York ordered a telephone company to install that kind of device. It was to help the FBI with a gambling investigation, and the justices ruled in favor of the FBI.
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