Recently, Judge James Orenstein from Brooklyn, New York, ruled that Apple can’t be compelled to unlock an iPhone 5S running iOS 7. The Department of Justice was not happy with that ruling, and it’s asking another judge to take a second look.
The NY case is a little different than the one in San Bernardino because it’s about an iPhone 5S running iOS 7, where some data could be retrieved by Apple before by taking advantage of some security design flaws within the iOS 7 operating system.
The FBI has also been somewhat misleading so far, because it implies Apple can help it unlock encrypted devices, when in fact, in the past, it could only extract unencrypted data from devices. That’s why the encryption prior to iOS 8 can be considered “flawed,” and why Apple fixed it in iOS 8. Too much data remained unencrypted prior to iOS 8, even though customers thought the local encryption would encrypt everything.
"Apple can perform this data extraction process on iOS devices running iOS 4 through iOS 7. Please note the only categories of user generated active files that can be provided to law enforcement, pursuant to a valid search warrant, are: SMS, iMessage, MMS, photos, videos, contacts, audio recording, and call history. Apple cannot provide: email, calendar entries, or any third-party app data," stated Apple in its own law enforcement guidelines.
Because security is all about trying to stay one step ahead of hackers, Apple fixed that flaw and therefore the loophole that the DoJ was using to get Apple to unlock iPhones. However, this hasn’t stopped the DoJ and the FBI from asking judges to compel Apple to find another way to unlock iPhones.
The New York case was a major setback for the DoJ, because if Apple can’t be compelled to take advantage of its own operating systems’ flaws in iOS 7 in order to unlock it for the government, then the government has an even weaker case for iPhones with iOS 8 and later. For those later versions, Apple would have to expend a larger engineering effort to bypass the stronger security protections, putting an even bigger burden on the company.
Winning the NY case alone is not going to be sufficient for the DoJ, because most iPhone users already have newer versions of iOS. However, if the DoJ wins the NY case by overturning the last judge's ruling, it would also open up the opportunity for the DoJ to win in the San Bernardino case, as well.
Then it would be able to compel Apple to unlock its devices no matter what its security is. Even if Apple makes it even harder for itself to hack its own devices, the DoJ and the FBI would use these precedents to push further.
It now remains to be seen if the DoJ can get a different ruling in New York. If it can’t, then the chances to succeed in the San Bernardino case will become that much slimmer.
Lucian Armasu is a Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware. You can follow him at @lucian_armasu.