A New York federal judge ruled on Monday that the government lacks clear legal right to compel Apple to give assistance in bypassing a locked iPhone linked to a drug case.
Magistrate Judge James Orenstein said in his decision that the government has no authority in using the All Writs Act of 1789 to oblige Apple, or any company, to break its security protocols and hack into a specific device.
"The government essentially argues that having reaped the benefits of being an American company, it cannot claim to be burdened by being seen to assist the government," Orenstein writes in his 50-page decision. "Such argument reflects poorly on a government that exists in part to safeguard the freedom of its citizens ... to make autonomous choices about how best to balance societal and private interests in going about their lives and their businesses."
Back in 2014, warrants were issued to carry out a search to residences of Jun Feng, an alleged drug trafficker, and his associates. Feng's iPhone 5s, which runs iOS 7, was among the many mobile handsets the Drug Enforcement Agency recovered during the search.
In October 2015, the government filed a motion compelling Apple to bypassing the passcode of the suspected drug trafficker in order to check the data saved on it, which could be significant in the case.
Do note that this particular case is different from that against the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which involves an Apple 5c used by Syed Farook, one of the suspects in the San Bernardino shooting last December 2015.
While this is a separate case, the ruling may help Apple in its argument that it does not need to cooperate with the court order issued last Feb. 16 to help the FBI in hacking into Farook's iPhone.
Apple believes that the demand of the government to hack into the terrorist's iPhone, running its most recent mobile operating system iOS 9, will create a "back door" into every iPhone. Should the company give in to the government's demand, Apple boss Tim Cooks says it would set a "dangerous precedent."
The FBI, in the meantime, is convinced that accessing the saved information in Farook's iPhone will be essential in ensuring national security and preventing similar terrorist attacks in the future.
Previously, the Cupertino-based company already opposed an order that would require it to provide its assistance to the FBI in hacking into the iPhone of Farook, saying that it is a violation of the Constitution.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Justice expressed its disappointment on the court's decision in New York.
"As our prior court filings make clear, Apple expressly agreed to assist the government in accessing the data on this iPhone – as it had many times before in similar circumstances – and only changed course when the government's application for assistance was made public by the court," says a DOJ spokesperson. "This phone may contain evidence that will assist us in an active criminal investigation."
Greg Boyd, a lawyer who specializes in privacy and data security, in the meantime, believes that the case serves as a reminder that the California case isn’t just about the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone, but is about gaining access to phones "whenever it is in the government's interest to do so."