A New York magistrate judge has said that the government can’t compel Apple to unlock an iPhone involved in a criminal investigation.
In a ruling filed today, Judge James Orenstein has said that he must “reject the government’s interpretation that the [All Writs Act] empowers a court to grant any relief not outright prohibited by law.” This decision is the latest development in a months-long case that may serve as a precursor to the iPhone maker’s larger confrontation with the FBI.
This is not the more public case involving San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook’s device, but it’s similar in many ways and may inform that battle. Now that one judge has ruled that the government can not use the All Writs Act to compel a company to act against its own wishes, it could establish a legal precedent that Apple can use in its own defense. This decision comes just one day before Apple and the FBI are set to appear in front of Congress to make their arguments.
Investigators were seeking the information contained on an iPhone 5s belonging to Jun Feng, who entered a guilty plea for drug and conspiracy charges back in October. Despite the conviction, the government still wants to get into the phone. Both Apple and prosecutors urged a decision on this matter.
Judge Orenstein’s interesting 50-page decision sides with Apple, saying that while he agrees with the government’s assertion that the contents of the phone are still relevant despite the defendant’s guilty plea,
Apple is not doing anything to keep law enforcement agents from conducting their investigation. Apple has not conspired with Feng to make the data on his device inaccessible.
[. . .]
Indeed, the government’s complaint is precisely that Apple is doing nothing at all. If Feng had not engaged the passcode security on his device, or if the government had been able to secure an order compelling Feng to unlock the phone on pain of contempt sanctions, the government might well be in a position to seize the iPhone’s data without Apple’s assistance.
So in this case, at least, Apple can refuse to unlock iPhones at the behest of the government under the All Writs Act. Whether or not that translates to its case against the FBI remains to be seen, but it probably doesn’t hurt.