A federal judge in New York Monday denied a U.S. government motion to force Apple to help unlock an iPhone, setting up a potential for conflicting rulings in different districts over a legal argument that has sparked a heated debate regarding privacy and safety.
It’s a different crime, a different phone, and a different judge, but the argument was the same, and this time the argument failed. It’s also the latest complication in a high profile battle between the gadget giant and law enforcement, poised to set meaningful precedents in how impenetrable your smartphone can be from people who want to hack it.
U.S. Magistrate Judge James Orenstein Tuesday denied a Justice Department motion using the same 200-year-old law that won the department a court order earlier this month, which would force Apple to help the FBI unlock an iPhone used by one of the terrorists who killed 14 people in December’s San Bernardino, California, mass shooting.
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Apple has warned that the government’s motion in the San Bernardino case starts a slippery slope that puts the digital privacy of all iPhone users at risk. The government has said that it has no intention of setting loose a “master key” or “backdoor” to iPhones; it wants computer programming to apply narrowly to that one phone.
The latest motion is in the Eastern District of New York, and it concerns a phone possibly linked to drug trafficking, not a terrorism. But the Justice Department’s legal argument was the same as the one it made in the San Bernardino case, based on a law known as the All Writs Act.
However, Orenstein indicated that the DOJ is trying to get something in the courts could have been set by lawmakers. Because Congress previously considered legislation that would have achieved the same result but has not adopted it, Orenstein concluded the U.S. is asking for a power that the All Writs Act shouldn’t grant.
He also indicated that Apple lacked the kind of closeness to the underlying crime that would make All Writs Act appropriate here, and indicated the the burden it would place on Apple and the necessity of forcing Apple to help wasn’t sufficient to grant the government’s request.
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A senior Apple official, speaking on a call with reporters, noted that the New York case could have bearing on how the judge in the San Bernardino motion ultimately rules. In the California case, the magistrate judge is still set to weigh Apple’s arguments against the DOJ’s to determine whether the motion should be enforced. That means she could consider the rational behind the New York-based judge’s ruling.
The Apple official also pointed out that the New York case would been less of a burden on Apple to comply compared with the San Bernardino case, and yet it was still rejected. The government must show that its request doesn’t impose an “unreasonable burden” on Apple, and the San Bernardino requests are much more elaborate than what the New York case was seeking.