Yesterday, a New York City federal judge denied the Department of Justice’s request for a court order that would force Apple to hack into the iPhone of a Brooklyn drug dealer.
Judge James Orenstein ruled that federal government cannot use the All Writs Act of 1789 to compel Apple to hack into the iPhone. He argued that the government failed to provide justification for why Apple should assist with the federal government’s investigation.
“In addition, applicable case law requires me to consider three factors in deciding whether to issue an order under the AWA: the closeness of Apple’s relationship to the underlying criminal conduct and government investigation; the burden the requested order would impose on Apple; and the necessity of imposing such a burden on Apple. As explained below, after reviewing the facts in the record and the parties’ arguments, I conclude that none of those factors justifies imposing on Apple the obligation to assist the government’s investigation against its will.”
The federal judge also wrote that the federal government was trying to use powers that it hasn’t been given by Congress.
“The question to be answered in this matter, and in others like it across the country, is not whether the government should be able to force Apple to help it unlock a specific device,” Orenstein wrote. “It is instead whether the All Writs Act resolves that issue and many others like it yet to come. … I conclude that it does not.”
Orenstein wrote that he had ‘no opinion’ on the debate between privacy and lawful request for information. But, he wrote:
“How best to balance those interests is a matter of critical importance to our society, and the need for an answer becomes more pressing daily, as the tide of technological advance flows ever farther past the boundaries of what seemed possible even a few decades ago. But that debate must happen today, and it must take place among legislators who are equipped to consider the technological and cultural realities of a world their predecessors could not begin to conceive. It would betray our constitutional heritage and our people’s claim to democratic governance for a judge to pretend that our Founders already had that debate, and ended it, in 1789.”
The case involved a drug dealer, Jun Feng, who was arrested in 2014. Last year, the DEA got a search warrant to search through Feng’s iPhone in order to track Feng’s associates and customers. However, the agents couldn’t crack the passcode to see the data inside.
The Justice Department claims that Apple is being inconsistent and plans to appeal the decision to the district court, with the possibility of taking the case all the way up to the Supreme Court.
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,” DOJ spokesperson Emily Pierce said in a statement.
An Apple executive, according to CNN Money, said that the company did offer to help, but only if the government made a lawful request.
“We will produce information when there is a lawful order to do so,” the executive said. “But Judge Orenstein, on his own behalf, said he would not issue this order.”