Can A 1789 Law Apply To An iPhone? : All Tech Considered The All Writs Act of 1789 was cited by a federal magistrate in ordering Apple to unlock an iPhone.

Can A 1789 Law Apply To An iPhone?

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Here's an eye-catching detail in the debate over an iPhone. A federal judge ordered Apple to unlock an encrypted phone belonging to one of the San Bernardino shooters. And in doing so, the judge cited a law from 1789.


1789, who knew there were iPhones back then?

INSKEEP: Oh, sure, it's a little known part of the Constitution. It goes - I can do it from memory here. We the people in order to regulate communication...

MONTAGNE: Oh, come on, Steve. That's not the Constitution. That's James Madison's phone service contract.

INSKEEP: Silly me, my mistake, in any case, it makes people wonder if a 1789 law could really apply to this situation today. Here's NPR's Laura Sydell.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: The phone in question was used by Syed Farook, who along with his wife was allegedly motivated by violent jihadist ideology to kill 14 co-workers in San Bernardino last year. His employer owned the phone, but Farook created the password. And the iPhone is designed so that after 10 failed attempts to log on, it erases the personal information on it. The Justice Department got a court order telling Apple it must create special software to unlock the phone. Apple has refused. The company claims that creating such software would make all phones less secure. I asked Adam Scott Wandt, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, if he could think of another case like this one.

ADAM SCOTT WANDT: Give me one second to think.

SYDELL: It took more than a second, but he finally came up with a law from 1999.

WANDT: To force all cellular communication providers to at all times be able to geolocate their cellphones.

SYDELL: But, Scott Wandt admits it's not a perfect analogy. Locating a phone and gaining access to everything on it is not the same thing. Scott Wandt says last year, the Supreme Court declared that today's mobile phones are something special. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio of this story, we incorrectly say the Supreme Court's decision on mobile phones was handed down last year. The case was actually decided in 2014.]

WANDT: That your average phone today has so much information in it and such a digest and diary of somebody's life that it needs more protection than it had, you know, in the past.

SYDELL: Let's add another element. Apple claims that if it creates a software key that can break into this phone, the key could eventually find its way into the hands of hackers. It's just too hard to protect. Cardozo Law professor Aaron Wright tried this comparison.

AARON WRIGHT: One analogy that I've heard is it's like asking a doormaker to create doors that only let the government in. And in the process, that just creates risks that may enable other people to follow them through that door.

SYDELL: Of course, that just wouldn't happen in the physical world. Even after the government gets a warrant to search your home, there's no special universal key. If you don't open the door, police physically break it down. But trying to write a law specific to a new technology can be very hard, says Santa Clara Law School professor Irina Raicu. Take the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.

IRINA RAICU: They assumed that people would not store emails and other things for more than six months, and they didn't contemplate the fact that storage was going to become so cheap that we all have tons of old emails in our accounts.

SYDELL: Raicu thinks we may be better off adapting old laws to the new world. She thinks it's a good thing that the federal court used the principle set out in a 1789 law to order Apple to unlock the phone.

RAICU: The law actually seems to be keeping up with technology by being so broad that we are just reinterpreting it all the time.

SYDELL: In his impassioned explanation on Apple's website for refusing the government's order, CEO Tim Cook criticized the use of this old law rather than, as Cook put it, asking for legislative action through Congress. But as Raicu sees it, Cook may want to be careful what he asks for. Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco.

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