Apple has scored a huge victory in a New York case involving a locked iPhone, one day before it’s due to testify before Congress on the matter of encryption.
A magistrate judge in the case, which revolves around drug trafficking and is different from the California battle between Apple and the FBI, ruled that the government can’t force Apple to help it unlock an iPhone under the All Writs Act (AWA).
This is the same law the FBI is invoking in demanding Apple build a special software to access a locked iPhone 5C used by one of the San Bernardino terrorists.
In his ruling today, Magistrate Judge James Orenstein essentially calls the government’s interpretation of the AWA too broad – so much so that if it were applied in the way the government sought it be, it’d be unconstitutional. He also makes a compelling case for why Congress should make a decision on just how far the AWA can go.
Orenstein’s ruling concludes that the New York case is much bigger than one iPhone, which Apple and security experts, including a mobile security expert interviewed by techradar, have said in respect to the San Bernardino case.
"Ultimately, the question to be answered in this matter, and others like it across the country, 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.
What’s next in Apple vs FBI
The New York ruling doesn’t set a binding legal precedent, TechCrunch notes, but it could very well influence the judge in the California case as well as be used by Apple in an appeal if it loses to the FBI.
In a motion filed last week, Apple calls the AWA a limited law and says questions of whether companies should be required to build a backdoor into their devices is a matter for Congress to decide after public debate, not the courts. These two points line up with Orenstein in his ruling.
As for what’s next in the case that’s captured international attention, the Cupertino firm and the feds will face off over a motion seeking to compel it to build the special iPhone-cracking software on March 22.
But before then, Apple will testify before the US House of Representatives Judiciary Committee tomorrow, as will the FBI.
The company’s lead counsel issued his opening remarks a today. In it he lays out three questions:
- Do we want to put a limit on the technology that protects our data, and therefore our privacy and our safety, in the face of increasingly sophisticated cyber attacks?
- Should the FBI be allowed to stop Apple, or any company, from offering the American people the safest and most secure product it can make?
- Should the FBI have the right to compel a company to produce a product it doesn’t already make, to the FBI’s exact specifications and for the FBI’s use?
Some lawmakers have stepped forward with a proposal to establish a commission that would look at digital security, one that would include members of the tech community. When asked if this is the type of commission CEO Tim Cook had called for in a letter to employees, an Apple spokesperson referred us to the letter as well as a Q&A on Apple’s website.