Apple privacy stance backed by US judge in drugs case

1 Mar 2016

A New York judge has supported Apple in its battle with US authorities, ordering that the US government can’t force the tech giant to extract data from an iPhone.

In a case separate to the ongoing San Bernardino shooting one the other side of the country, Apple received a major boon as the 1789 All Writs Act was brought into question.

It is partly this Act that the US government is using in its request for Apple to hack a former customer’s phone, that of Syed Farook, the now deceased man who was behind the San Bernardino shooting in December. In essence, US authorities want tailored software created so they can hack into the locked phone, something Apple is openly challenging.

Although the New York ruling is for a completely different case, it lands a major blow on the US government’s argument. The All Writs Act broadly says that courts can require actions to comply with their orders when not covered by existing law.

Big problems

However, US Magistrate Judge James Orenstein  has said the government was getting too big for its boots by using the All Writs Act to force Apple to extract data from an iPhone seized in connection with a drug case. The problem is that the government’s view of the All Writs Act is so broad that it casts doubt on its constitutionality if adopted, Orenstein wrote.

As The Intercept explains, Orenstein “repeatedly noted that the government could not demonstrate, or even state, that it would be unable to access the iPhone without Apple’s help” – this is important, as it suggests that access is irrelevant, and instead suggests the All Writs Act is being used as a tool to open up options for future cases.

He rejected claims that Apple was only concerned with public relations, too, saying he found no limit on how far the government would go to require a person or company to violate the most deeply-rooted values.

Apple is obviously delighted with the news, which came just hours after its legal counsel Bruce Sewell produced his opening statement in defence of his client in the San Bernardino case.

Extraordinary circumstance

Sewell will extend Apple’s deepest sympathies to the victims and families of the attacks and will tell the committee: “Apple has no sympathy for terrorists.” Sewell said Apple is at the centre of “an extraordinary circumstance”.

“The FBI has asked a court to order us to give them something we don’t have. To create an operating system that does not exist – because it would be too dangerous.

“Hackers and cyber-criminals could use this to wreak havoc on our privacy and personal safety. It would set a dangerous precedent for government intrusion on the privacy and safety of its citizens.”

Apple CEO Tim Cook said that creating a backdoor into the iPhone would be the “software equivalent of cancer”.

In New York, the US Department of Justice is looking for a review of the decision, while in California things are set to kick off today.

Main image via ymgerman/Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic