A U.S. District judge has thrown out a government request to compel Apple to help law enforcement retrieve data from an iPhone linked to a New York drug case.
The ruling from Magistrate Judge James Orenstein, of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, lends Apple’s challenge of a more recent federal court order telling the company it must aid the FBI in breaking the encryption on the iPhone of one of the attackers who carried out the deadly Dec. 2 terrorist attack in San Bernardino, Calif more weight.
In his ruling Monday, Orenstein said he did not have the legal authority to order Apple to disable the security of an iPhone linked to the criminal case dating back to June 2014.
During a raid at the residences of a suspected drug trafficker, the Drug Enforcement Agency recovered a number of mobile devices linked to the investigation, one of which was Feng’s iPhone 5s.
One problem, Orenstein stated, is the DEA waited until July 2015 to try to access data from the iPhone in question. When it could not, it turned to the FBI for assistance. The FBI, however, was also unable to bypass the iPhone’s encryption. A data retrieval request was filed with Apple and the company said it would help obtain all information possible without cracking the encryption.
The government, last October, filed a motion with the court in a bid to force the company’s hand. The filing fell back on the All Writs Act (AWA) of 1789 as justification for the request, a move that Orenstein was derisive of. As the judge pointed out, the AWA’s constitutionality is debatable at best.
“The government contends that it cannot successfully search Feng’s device without Apple’s assistance,” Orenstein wrote in his decision. “If that assertion is true, the government may be entitled to relief under the AWA if it can satisfy the remaining statutory requirements and discretionary factors. But if it is false –if the government has access to resources that would in fact allow it to vindicate this court’s jurisdiction without compelling Apple to take action it finds objectionable – that fact would weigh heavily against granting relief.
“As the movant, it is the government’s burden to establish the factual assertions upon which it claims to be entitled to relief. I conclude that it has failed to do so because of the conflicting evidence in the record about the availability, from private sources other than Apple, of technology that would allow the government to bypass the passcode security on (the) device.”
Orenstein went on to say:
In considering the burden the requested relief would impose on Apple, it is entirely appropriate to take into account the extent to which the compromise of privacy and data security that Apple promises its customers affects not only its financial bottom line, but also its decisions about the kind of corporation it aspires to be. The fact that the government or a judge might disapprove Apple’s preference to safeguard data security and customer privacy over the stated needs of a law enforcement agency is of no moment: in the absence of any other legal constraint, that choice is Apple’s to make, and I must take into account the fact that an order compelling Apple to abandon that choice would impose a cognizable burden on the corporation that is wholly distinct from any direct or indirect financial cost of compliance.
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 government’s motion is denied.
The ruling can be seen below: