A magistrate judge in the U.S. District Court in New York has handed Apple a legal victory in a Brooklyn drug case where federal investigators asked for help getting into a locked iPhone.
Though the ruling isn't precedent-setting or binding on other courts, it hits on a similar overarching theme of government access to encrypted data, as The Washington Post reports:
"The two cases involve different versions of iPhone's operating system and vastly different requests for technical help, but they both turn on whether a law from 1789 known as the All Writs Act can be applied to cases in which the government cannot get at encrypted data stored on suspects' devices."
NPR's Joel Rose previously outlined the premise of this Brooklyn case, which predated the legal clash over an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters:
"Jun Feng pleaded guilty to selling methamphetamine last year. As part of its investigation, the government obtained a search warrant for Feng's iPhone. But the phone was locked by a passcode, so prosecutors asked a judge for an order compelling Apple to bypass it."
That order was based on the same law as the San Bernardino court order compelling Apple's help in unlocking the iPhone used by Syed Rizwan Farook before the Dec. 2 attack, in which he and his wife killed 14 people.
Federal prosecutors say the All Writs Act has been often used to compel companies, including Apple, to help with investigations. But, as Rose reports, something unusual happened in the Brooklyn drug case:
"Federal Magistrate Judge James Orenstein did not sign the order the government wanted. Instead, he went public and asked Apple if the company had any objections. ...
"The judge seemed particularly skeptical that the government relied in part on an 18th century law called the All Writs Act."
The Justice Department says Apple had previously complied with at least 70 All Writs Act orders without objection, and the Brooklyn case was the first in which Apple challenged such an order in court.
In the Monday ruling, Judge James Orenstein wrote:
"...the relief the government seeks is unavailable because Congress has considered legislation that would achieve the same result but has not adopted it. In addition, applicable case law requires me to consider three factors in deciding whether to issue an order under the [All Writs Act]: the closeness of Apple's relationship to the underlying criminal conduct and government investigation; the burden the requested order would impose on Apple; and the necessity of imposing such a burden on Apple. As explained below, after reviewing the facts in the record and the parties' arguments, I conclude that none of those factors justifies imposing on Apple the obligation to assist the government's investigation against its will. I therefore deny the motion. ...
"Ultimately, the question to be answered in this matter, and in others like it across the country, is not whether the government should be able to force Apple to help it unlock a specific device; it is instead whether the All Writs Act resolves that issue and many others like it yet to come. For the reasons set forth above, I conclude that it does not."
The Justice Department says it plans to appeal the case:
"We are disappointed in the Magistrate's ruling and plan to ask the District Judge to review the matter in the coming days. As our prior court filings make clear, Apple expressly agreed to assist the government in accessing the data on this iPhone — as it had many times before in similar circumstances — and only changed course when the government's application for assistance was made public by the court. This phone may contain evidence that will assist us in an active criminal investigation and we will continue to use the judicial system in our attempt to obtain it."
FBI Director James Comey and Apple's General Counsel Bruce Sewell are both slated to testify at a House Judiciary Committee hearing on encryption on Tuesday.
U.S. attorneys are due to respond to Apple's filing in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California by March 10, and a hearing has been scheduled there for March 22.