DAVID GREENE, HOST:
All right, in this country we have the back story of an Internet security case. Federal prosecutors want a look inside the iPhone used by one of the shooters in the mass killing in San Bernardino, Calif. Apple is resisting an order to do that. It turns out that Apple has fought this battle in court before. NPR's Joel Rose reports.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: The Brooklyn case starts with a drug dealer. Jun Feng pleaded guilty to selling methamphetamine. As part of its investigation, the FBI got a search warrant for Feng's iPhone. But the phone was locked by a pass code. So prosecutors asked a judge for an order compelling Apple to bypass the lock. This was all pretty routine, says Susan Hennessy. She's a former lawyer for the NSA who's now at the Brookings Institution.
SUSAN HENNESSEY: In approximately 70 prior occasions, this exact situation had occurred. And Apple had elected to comply with the court order.
GREENE: The fact that Apple had bypassed the lock on 70 phones in similar cases was revealed during a court hearing last October. Apple might have quietly done the same for Jun Feng's phone too, but something unusual happened. 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.
JENNIFER GRANICK: What was remarkable is that the public hadn't seen the argument surfaced.
ROSE: Jennifer Granick is with the Stanford Center for Internet and Society.
GRANICK: Judge Orenstein had concerns about whether the government's legal argument for compelling Apple was a valid legal argument.
ROSE: The judge seemed particularly skeptical that the government is relying in part on an 18th century law called the All Writs Act. Prosecutors say it gives them authority to compel companies like Apple to help carry out search warrants. Susan Hennessey at the Brookings Institution says the government probably expected Apple to comply, just like the company had dozens of times before.
HENNESSEY: The All Writs Act, it's intended to be a gap-filling measure. This is precisely how All Writs has been applied throughout history.
ROSE: But this time, lawyers for Apple disagreed. They said the company had complied when the law seemed settled. But in October, Apple's lawyers argued that the government was actually asking for something novel, the power to force a tech company to defeat the security on one of its own devices. It's similar to the argument that's now playing out in California, where the FBI wants Apple to unlock the iPhone of Sayed Farook.
ALEX ABDO: The cases are different. But the underlying legal question is very similar.
ROSE: Alex Abdo is a lawyer with the ACLU.
ABDO: The question in the New York case is whether the government can rely on this very old statute to conscript Apple into government service.
ROSE: There are some key differences between the two cases. The defendant's iPhone in New York was using an older operating system, which makes it relatively easy for Apple to bypass the lock. The iPhone in California is running Apple's newer operating system. And the company says it would have to write software to get into the phone. Alex Abdo at the ACLU says that's a conscious change by Apple.
ABDO: Because they didn't want to be in a position, they told the court, of having to serve as a government investigative agent. They wanted to be out of the business of spying on their customers.
ROSE: That may be especially important to Apple in international markets, where security is a big selling point. But U.S. law enforcement is frustrated by that argument. Federal prosecutors say Apple is putting its own public relations interests ahead of national security. They think Apple could easily defeat the security on phone in California and Brooklyn, just like it's done 70 times before. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.
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