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Apple Doesn’t Have to Unlock iPhone Seized in Drug Case


A New York judge this week rejected the government’s request to force Apple to unlock a phone involved in a drug case, a move that could be good news for Cupertino’s more public battle with the FBI over the phone used by the San Bernardino shooter.

New York U.S. Magistrate Judge James Orenstein is not convinced that the All Writs Act gives the government the authority to force Apple to unlock a phone seized by the DEA.

In deciding whether to grant the request, the judge said he considered three main things: the closeness of Apple’s relationship to the underlying criminal conduct and government investigation; the burden the requested order would impose on Apple; and the necessity of imposing such a burden on Apple. 

“After reviewing the facts in the record and the parties’ arguments, I conclude that none of those factors justifies imposing on Apple the obligation to assist the government’s investigation against its will. I therefore deny the motion,” Judge Orenstein wrote.

At issue is an iPhone 5s seized in 2014 from Jun Feng, who was accused of drug trafficking. Eventually, Feng pleaded guilty, but the government said access to Feng’s phone was still necessary because he pleaded guilty to conspiracy, so the device might lead the feds to accomplices.

Judge Orenstein is not convinced. “Ultimately, the question to be answered in this matter, and in others like it across the country, is not whether the government should be able to force Apple to help it unlock a specific device; it is instead whether the All Writs Act resolves that issue and many others like it yet to come,” he wrote. “I conclude that it does not.”

Going forward, this debate over privacy and security in the digital age “must take place among legislators who are equipped to consider the technological and cultural realities of a world their predecessors could not begin to conceive,” the judge concluded. “It would betray our constitutional heritage and our people’s claim to democratic governance for a judge to pretend that our Founders already had that debate, and ended it, in 1789,” when the All Writs Act was enacted.

As reported by Reuters, a senior Apple exec says this bodes well for its fight with the FBI over access to the iPhone 5c belonging to one of the San Bernardino shooters.

In that case, Apple has rejected the FBI’s request to unlock the shooter’s iPhone. To do that, Apple would have to create a new operating system to crack the device’s encryption, which Apple CEO Tim Cook says is aslippery slope. If it falls into the wrong hands, it could do serious damage to the security of iPhone’s around the globe, he said.

That case is ongoing; it remains to be seen if the New York decision has an influence on the San Bernardino case.

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