Apple Wins Court Victory in New York iPhone Hacking Order

Rafia Shaikh

Similar to the demands the FBI has made to Apple in the case of San Bernardino attacks, the Justice Department had also requested the tech giant to help it extract data from a locked iPhone in a drug case. As the battle between Apple and the FBI continues, Apple has won a major legal victory. A federal magistrate judge in New York has rejected the U.S. government's request to force Apple to help it extract data and has also ruled that the All Writs Act does not "justify imposing on Apple the obligation to assist the government’s investigation against its will." The same Act is being used by the government to force Apple to follow its demands in the San Bernardino case.

apple fbi encryption battle

Court victory for Apple as N.Y. Judge supports its encryption fight:

The government cannot force Apple to unlock an iPhone in the drug case, U.S. Magistrate Judge James Orenstein in Brooklyn ruled on Monday. Apple is presenting its case to Congress on March 1 and this ruling will certainly help make its argument stronger in the company's landmark legal standoff with the Justice Department over encryption. The government requested access to the phone in the Brooklyn drug case in October, months before the current legal battle between Apple and the FBI began.

In the Brooklyn case against Jun Feng, the Drug Enforcement Administration had seized his iPhone 5 but was unable to extract data even after consultation with the FBI. The FBI and the DEA said they could not break the security measures on iOS and filed a motion to order "Apple to assist" the investigation. The government used the same 1789 All Writs Act that the FBI is invoking now in its latest attempts at weakening software encryption in the San Bernardino case. Apple had, however, objected to the FBI's demands claiming that there were nine other cases in which government was seeking similar access.

Judge Orenstein supported the argument that the All Writs Act cannot be used to force Apple to unlock a phone and that Apple was "largely exempt from complying with such requests by a 1994 law that updated wiretapping laws," reported Reuters. The Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act was passed in 1994 and Orenstein said that it exempted Apple from following these requests. The report quoting an unnamed senior Apple executive said that the U.S. Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym, who is the judge in the San Bernardino case is not bound by Orenstein's decision. However, the decision will likely be influential as the same 1789 law is being invoked in both the cases.

The ruling that came on Monday could prove to be devastating for the FBI, especially because the Judge Orenstein has stated the purpose of the FBI's request is not to simply obtain evidence in one particular case, but to grant the government broad authority to force tech companies in following FBI's demands.

The Application before this court is by no means singular: the government has to date successfully invoked the AWA to secure Apple’s compelled assistance in bypassing the passcode security of Apple devices at least 70 times in the past; it has pending litigation in a dozen more cases in which Apple has not yet been forced to provide such assistance; and in its most recent use of the statute it goes so far as to contend that a court — without any legislative authority other than the AWA — can require Apple to create a brand new product that impairs the utility of the products it is in the business of selling.

It is thus clear that the government is relying on the AWA as a source of authority that is legislative in every meaningful way: something that can be cited as a basis for getting the relief it seeks in case after case without any need for adjudication of the particular circumstances of an individual case (as the arguments that the government relies on here to justify entering an AWA order against Apple would apply with equal force to any instance in which it cannot bypass the passcode security of an Apple device it has a warrant to search).

Monday's ruling is a major win for Apple as it made it clear that the U.S. government lacks the authority that it claims by invoking the 18th century All Writs Act to force any company to assist in its criminal investigations by breaking its own software's security. Apple has never made a new piece of software in response to a government request, Apple executive claimed.

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