March 1, 2016

NY judge weakens FBI case against Apple

KIntercept - pple scored a major legal victory in its ongoing battle against the FBI when a federal magistrate judge in New York rejected the U.S. government’s request as part of a drug case to force the company to help it extract data from a locked iPhone.

In the case that gave rise to Monday’s ruling, the Drug Enforcement Administration had seized — but, even after consultation with the FBI, claimed it was unable to access — Feng’s iPhone 5. The DEA and FBI said they could not overcome security measures embedded in Apple’s operating system. The government thus filed a motion seeking an order requiring “Apple to assist” the investigation “under the authority of the All Writs Act” — the same 1789 law the FBI is invoking in the San Bernardino case — by “help[ing] the government bypass the passcode security.” Apple objected, noting that there were nine other cases currently pending in which the government was seeking a similar order.

Judge Orenstein applied previous legal decisions interpreting the AWA and concluded that the law does not “justif[y] imposing on Apple the obligation to assist the government’s investigation against its will.” In a formulation extremely favorable to Apple, the judge wrote that the key question raised by the government’s request is whether the AWA allows a court “to compel Apple — a private party with no alleged involvement in Feng’s criminal activity — to perform work for the government against its will.”

The court ruled that the law permits no such result — both because relevant law contains limits on what companies like Apple are required to do, and because Congress never enacted any such obligations. Moreover, the judge said of the government’s arguments for how the AWA should be applied: “The implications of the government’s position are so far-reaching — both in terms of what it would allow today and what it implies about congressional intent in 1789 — as to produce impermissibly absurd results.”

Perhaps most devastating to the FBI’s case is Orenstein’s recognition that the purpose of the FBI’s request is not simply to obtain evidence in one particular case, but rather to grant the government broad, precedential authority to force Apple and other tech companies to take affirmative technological steps to cooperate with criminal investigations generally. That the FBI is seeking to establish broad precedent is a key argument made by Apple and its supporters in the San Bernardino case. To accept that the U.S. government has this power, ruled the court, is to vest law enforcement agencies with statutory authority that Congress itself never enacted:

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