A federal judge ruled late yesterday that that U.S. Justice Department cannot force Apple to provide the FBI with unlocked data from an iPhone in a Brooklyn drug case. The decision, while unrelated to the one in California that sparked Apple’s resistance to a court order that they provide the FBI with the tools to unlock its phones, gives the company an important legal leg to stand on. The ruling is not binding in any other court, but that doesn’t prevent the decision from influencing the ongoing battle in the other and higher-profile case. In this case, the request to make Apple provide information was certainly a more routine request then the one in the California case relating to the San Bernardino Massacre. And the New York case relied on an older version of Apples iOS, one where Apple could easily extract data and provide it to the police if a proper warrant was secured in advance.
The case might be different, but the timing and the relevance of the topic could not be more serendipitous for the company and its allies in their struggle against the FBI in the California case. The ruling came right on the eve of a Congressional hearing on encryption scheduled for Tuesday, and is unambiguously a judicial accusation of government overreach. Magistrate Judge James Orenstein wrote in his opinion that:
The implications of the government’s position are so far-reaching – both in terms of what it would allow today and what it implies about Congressional intent in 1789 – as to produce impermissibly absurd results.
Orenstein’s rejection of the government’s request centers around a more than 200-year-old law called the All Writs Act. The All Writs Act grants courts the ability to issue orders that don’t stem from existing laws. It’s intended to help judges deal with weird and unpredictable issues that arise from time to time which haven’t yet been covered by the actual law. It made sense when the country had just been founded to have a law that allowed judges to act with more discretion in the name of practicality, but it’s not even used anymore in modern courts — unless the government wants to break into your iPhone.
That law is what binds the Brooklyn and California cases together: the government is using the same more than two century old law to justify its case against Apple in California.
Orenstein suggests that Congress, as the branch of government that was designed to be composed of the peoples’ representatives, should resolve this debate. But even with an imminent hearing on the very topic, it remains unlikely that Congress will act. The GOP-controlled Congress seems perfectly content to sit and do nothing for the rest of Obama’s presidency and political pressure isn’t yet high enough for them to change course.
The Department of Justice intends to appeal the ruling to a higher court. While it’s too early to tell whether Apple will defend its interests in this case the same way it has in California, it seems more likely than not that it would.
Featured image via Wikimedia Commons