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Apple vs. FBI : Apple wins round one of the battle as Court denies US access to iPhone data
Federal magistrate denies the US government’s request that would compel Apple to extract data from an iPhone that was seized in a drug case
While the case of FBI’s request to make an iPhone hackable which was seized during San Bernardino shooting, is getting great attention all around the world; A decision on a similar case has strengthened Apple’s stance on user privacy.
James Orenstein, the magistrate judge, questioned the use of All Writs Act which forms a base for this case as well as other similar cases in which Apple and some other companies are being asked to unlock devices. He said that government was inflating its authority by using the All Writs Act to force Apple to extract data from an iPhone seized in connection with a drug case.
The same act was invoked in the FBI vs Apple case which had publicly pitted Apple against the government. Apple’s chief executive, Timothy D. Cook, has refused to comply with a federal court order to help break into the phone, saying that he needs to protect the data of all customers.
“It’s important that a judge for the first time recognizes the All Writs Act doesn’t provide the lawful authority the government has been claiming in these cases,” said Esha Bhandari, a lawyer with the A.C.L.U., which supports Apple’s position. “It demonstrates that when the government’s arguments are put to the test, a federal court has decided they were not actually right.”
The Justice Department said, in response to the order, that they would ask the judge to review the decision. Apple had previously agreed to help open up the iPhone in the drug case, and has complied with past All Writs Act orders, the Justice Department said.
“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,” the Justice Department said.
An Apple executive has said that the ruling makes clear that helping to open up an iPhone is a constitutional issue that should be taken into consideration by Congress. Both F.B.I. and Apple have asked the Congress to interfere in this issue.
The case started in last October, when federal prosecutors applied for a court order to force Apple to unlock an iPhone 5s seized by the Drug Enforcement Administration in a 2014 drug case, according to court documents.
After federal prosecutors requested the order, Judge Orenstein argued in an 11-page memo last October that prosecutors were misusing the All Writs Act. The judge asked Apple to weigh in, and the company filed a brief that same month. In addition to agreeing with the judge, the company also said the request could create an undue burden and threatened to “substantially tarnish the Apple brand.”
“This reputational harm could have a longer-term economic impact beyond the mere cost of performing the single extraction at issue,” Apple said in a brief.
The government then called Apple’s decision to side with the judge a “stunning reversal.” Saritha Komatireddy, a Brooklyn federal prosecutor, said the government’s application in this case “was just a simple routine request for assistance in carrying out a valid search warrant issued by a federal court, as Apple has done so many times before.”
During the case, Judge Orenstein said he found it puzzling that Apple had not previously resisted the use of the All Writs Act, including in other cases where Apple had complied with the order.
“You have had apparently 70 prior instances where you have not taken the steps available to you,” Judge Orenstein said to Apple’s lawyers during a hearing.
Ultimately, Judge Orenstein argued that the government couldn’t use the All Writs Act to ask Apple to help extract information from a device just because a different law, the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, or Calea, addresses the issue and does not include an “information services” company like Apple. Congress has been debating whether to amend Calea to include tech companies such as Apple, Facebook and Alphabet’s Google.
Still, the decision is not binding for the San Bernardino case, said Eric A. Berg, a litigation lawyer and special counsel with Foley & Lardner, who is a former Justice Department lawyer.
“From a technical, legal standpoint, it doesn’t really have much of an effect in the California districts,” Mr. Berg said. But “if you start with public opinion, this is going to be viewed as a victory for the privacy lobby and a defeat for the government in that battle over privacy.”