A New York magistrate judge has declined to grant the government an order requiring Apple to help unlock the iPhone of a suspected drug trafficker.
The government—in this case the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency—suggested the court could rely on an archaic law called the All Writs Act to compel Apple to help. Magistrate Judge James Orenstein disagreed.
"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," the judge wrote in his opinion.
The All Writs Act is the same statute relied upon by a California federal court to order Apple to help the FBI unlock San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook's iPhone. The February 16th court order directs Apple to write new firmware code that would disable the security features of Farook's iPhone 5c, enabling the FBI to log in. Apple has refused to write the firmware.
The court in the San Bernardino phone case is expected to examine the matter again on March 22. The judge in the case, Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym, will almost certainly take into consideration the Orenstein ruling.
Judge Orenstein's decision is a clear repudiation of government's recent use of the All Writs Act (which dates back to 1789) to gain access to data on locked devices. Other courts could cite the decision as a basis for denying such orders.
"Ultimately, the question to be answered in this matter, and in others like it across the county, 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," Orenstein writes. "For the reasons set forth I conclude it does not."
Apple has yet to make a statement on the ruling, but others who might be impacted by Apple's fate in the matter are speaking out.
"Judge Orenstein showed a healthy amount of skepticism for the government’s efforts to twist and distort the All Writs Act to justify forcing companies to hack their own products," said the App Association's executive director Morgan Reed in a statement. The group represents small and mid-sized app developers, which the government could compel to provide backdoors to user data.
"To paraphrase the Princess Bride, the judge basically said, 'You keep citing that law. I do not think it means what you think it means,’" Reed said, colorfully. "This is major setback for the government’s campaign to force Apple and other companies to weaken the security of their products."