In a victory that could have lasting influence on privacy and more clearly define the boundaries of governmental reach, a federal magistrate in New York ruled on Feb. 29 that Apple did not have to comply with an FBI request to open an iPhone at the center of a drug case.
Apple has argued vehemently in this case and others that the government should not compel it to unlock iPhones or provide backdoors into its products. Doing so, it said, would compromise consumers' privacy rights and damage the company's reputation.
Judge James Orenstein, known as a Fourth Amendment advocate, agreed. In a 50-page ruling he knocked the government for assigning itself broad authority under the All Writs Act (AWA), an obscure Colonial-era law that grants broad discretion to judges.
“Under the circumstances of this case, the government has failed to establish either that the AWA permits the relief it seeks or that, even if such an order is authorized, the discretionary factors I must consider weigh in favor of granting the motion,” Orenstein wrote. “More specifically, the established rules for interpreting a statute's text constrain me to reject the government's interpretation that the AWA empowers a court to grant any relief not outright prohibited by law.”
It was Orenstein who first raised questions over prosecutors' request that the court order Apple to unlock an iPhone 5s that the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) had seized in a drug investigation. In an October memo, Orenstein took aim at the government's expansive use of the AWA and asked Apple to respond.
Alex Abdo, staff attorney with the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, praised Orenstein's ruling. “This is a victory for privacy, security, and common sense,” Abdo said in a statement. “The government should not be able to run to court to get the surveillance power that Congress has deliberately kept from it.”
He noted that the request extended beyond a single case. “The future of digital privacy also hangs in the balance,” he said. “If the government can force companies to weaken the security of their products, then we all lose.”
Orenstein's ruling does not have legal standing with cases pending outside of New York, including the controversial San Bernardino shooter case currently before a magistrate in California, though it could wield some influence.