In a victory that could have long-lasting influence on privacy and more clearly define the boundaries of governmental reach, a federal magistrate in New York ruled Monday that Apple did not have to comply with a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) request to crack 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 and that doing so would compromise consumers' privacy rights and damage Apple's reputation to the extent that it would cause the company economic harm.
Judge James Orenstein, known as a Fourth Amendment advocate, agreed. In a 50-page he knocked the government for assigning itself broad authority under the All Writs Act (AWA), a 1789 law that says that grants broad discretion to judges in carrying out orders that are "agreeable to the usages and principles of law."
“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.”
“We are disappointed in the Magistrate's ruling and plan to ask the District Judge to review the matter in the coming days,” stated DOJ deputy director Emily Pierce, in an email obtained by SCMagazine.com. “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.”
It was Orenstein who first raised questions over prosecutors' request that the court order Apple to unlock an iPhone 5s 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 All Writs Act and asked Apple to respond, Alex Abdo, staff attorney with the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, said in a conference call with the press in late February.
Abdo praised Orenstein's Monday 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.