Apple v. FBI II: Feds Push for New Fight Over Meth Dealer’s iPhone

The US will battle Apple anew to unlock another criminal’s phone, after backing out of its last case thanks to a last-minute hack

The U.S. government may have dropped its first fight against Apple, but the war isn’t over.

On Friday the Justice Department said it would press forward in another case to force Apple’s help accessing data on a phone linked to a New York drug ring.

It officially revives the high-profile fight between the the gadget giant and the highest levels of U.S. law enforcement, which could set meaningful precedents about how impenetrable consumers’ digital data on devices can be. But the latest case may not have as many implications for average consumers; this time, the U.S. isn’t seeking a “key” that could potentially unlock other phones if it fell into the wrong hands.

Last month, the U.S. government abruptly dropped its suit against Apple compelling the company to unlock an iPhone used by one of the terrorists in December’s deadly San Bernardino, California, mass shooting. When an 11th-hour hack from a third-party cracked the device, the FBI no longer needed Apple’s help bypassing the lock on the phone and the case was rendered moot, the Justice Department then said.

But on Friday, the Department of Justice said it would press forward in an appeal of a separate but similar case taking place in a New York federal court. A judge in the state’s Eastern District rejected a DOJ request to order Apple to access the iPhone of a methamphetamine dealer last month; now the DOJ has told the court it will follow through on its appeal.

With the San Bernardino phone, Apple argued that the government was forcing it to build entirely new software — a less secure operating system — that could be exploited as a backdoor to other phones. In the New York case, the government request isn’t that strong; it is simply asking Apple to extract the data from the specific phone.

Apple attorneys said the company was ready to fight. The government previously argued that it was narrowly focused on cracking into a single phone linked to terrorism, but the DOJ’s latest action indicates it’s actual goal is setting a precedent to make it easier for law enforcement to hack phones generally, the lawyers said during a call with reporters.

The Justice Department, on the other hand, noted several cases in which Apple had complied with similar orders before. Two cases involved child exploitation and another was linked to drug crimes. All of them involved what’s known as the All Writs Act, the 1789 law that Apple has said the government is abusing to get access to digital data.