Apple got the support it needed from a federal magistrate judge Monday (Feb. 29) that could set precedent for the company’s ongoing battle with the FBI in the San Bernardino iPhone case.
The specific case that became particularly relevant this week was a request from the federal government to have Apple provide data from an iPhone that was connected to a New York drug case. And similar to the current case that’s causing so much controversy in the political and tech worlds, Apple pitched consumer privacy as the reason to not extract data from the iPhone.
In general, Apple has argued that opening up data or access to any iPhone — regardless of circumstance — would weaken the iPhone’s security and could threaten the security of millions of consumers.
In a 50-page ruling, Judge James Orenstein referenced the 1789 statute known as the All Writs Act, which has been the same one that Apple’s legal team has used as to why they think the FBI’s request should be tossed. Under the guidance of that act, the judge said the government was overstepping its authority by requiring Apple to provide it with data from an iPhone.
“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,” Esha Bhandari, a lawyer with the ACLU, told The New York Times. “It demonstrates that when the government’s arguments are put to the test, a federal court has decided they were not actually right.”
But that’s not what the government thinks. The government’s stance is that the act was broadly written, which it claims should be enough for a judge to interpret on their own and not necessarily apply to all consumer privacy cases. And it doesn’t seem to be giving up anytime soon.
“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.
Following the decision, an Apple senior executive told The New York Times that this ruling should be enough to prove that the action of unlocking an iPhone is a constitutional issue and therefore should be heard and decided by Congress.
Apple’s argument against unlocking the phone has more to do with the security vulnerabilities it claims could be created as a result, which Apple says could leave millions of consumers’ products improperly protected. Building a software tool for the FBI to use to access an iPhone such as in this case would impact the security of all iPhones, Apple claims.
“The FBI is asking Apple to weaken the security of our products. Hackers and cybercriminals could use this to wreak havoc on our privacy and personal safety. It would set a dangerous precedent for government intrusion on the privacy and safety of its citizens,” Apple General Counsel Bruce Sewell wrote in prepared remarks ahead of an appearance before the House Judiciary Committee today (March 1).
“Hundreds of millions of law-abiding people trust Apple’s products with the most intimate details of their daily lives — photos, private conversations, health data, financial accounts and information about the user’s location, as well as the location of their friends and families. Some of you might have an iPhone in your pocket right now, and if you think about it, there’s probably more information stored on that iPhone than a thief could steal by breaking into your house. The only way we know to protect that data is through strong encryption,” he continued.