US govt 'cannot make Apple unlock iPhone'

A man letting his iPhone speak for him at a rally in the US last month in support of Apple's refusal to help the FBI access the phone of a gunman involved in last year's mass shooting in San Bernardino.
A man letting his iPhone speak for him at a rally in the US last month in support of Apple's refusal to help the FBI access the phone of a gunman involved in last year's mass shooting in San Bernardino.PHOTO: REUTERS

Ruling involving drug case boosts Apple's privacy stance

NEW YORK • A US court has denied the government's request that Apple extract data from an iPhone in a drug case in New York, giving the tech company's pro-privacy stance a boost as it battles law enforcement officials over opening up the device in other cases.

The ruling, from Judge James Orenstein, is the first time that the government's legal argument for opening up devices like the iPhone has been tested. It could set a precedent for other cases where law enforcement officials are trying to compel Apple to help unlock iPhones, including the stand-off between the company and the FBI over the iPhone used by one of the attackers in a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, last year.

Judge Orenstein, in his 50-page ruling on Monday, took particular aim at a 1789 US statute called the All Writs Act that underlies many government requests for extracting data from tech companies. The All Writs Act broadly says that courts can require actions to comply with their orders when not covered by existing law. Judge Orenstein said the government was inflating its authority by using the All Writs Act to force Apple to extract data from an iPhone seized in connection with the drug case.

The government's view of the All Writs Act is so expansive as to cast doubt on its constitutionality if adopted, the judge wrote.

The All Writs Act is also being invoked in the fight over an iPhone in the San Bernardino shooting. Apple's chief executive Tim Cook has refused to comply with a federal court order to help break into the phone, saying that he needs to protect the data of all customers. That has set off a far-reaching debate over privacy and security.

Both the FBI and Apple have called for Congress to step in to help settle the question of when law enforcement should get access to citizens' private data.

"It's important that a judge for the first time recognises the All Writs Act doesn't provide the lawful authority the government has been claiming in these cases," said Ms Esha Bhandari, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, which supports Apple's position.

In response to Judge Orenstein's ruling, the US Justice Department on Monday said it would ask him to review the decision. Apple had previously agreed to help open up the iPhone in the drug case, and it has complied with past All Writs Act orders, the Justice Department said.

"This phone may contain evidence that will assist us in an active criminal investigation, and we will continue to use the judicial system in our attempt to obtain it," the Justice Department said.

An Apple senior executive said Monday's ruling made it clear that helping to open an iPhone is a constitutional issue that should be taken up by Congress.

The ruling stands out because the courts have largely been absent on the major questions of electronic surveillance and privacy of our day.

While judges in the US have signed at least 70 orders at the request of the government compelling Apple to access data on phones, this was the first time a judge and Apple have pushed back.

Still, the decision is not binding for the San Bernardino case, said litigation lawyer Eric Berg, a former Justice Department lawyer.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 02, 2016, with the headline 'US govt 'cannot make Apple unlock iPhone''. Print Edition | Subscribe