In another iPhone unlocking case in Brooklyn, New York -- one that is not related to the one in San Bernardino, California -- a judge ruled against the FBI, saying it can’t compel Apple to unlock the iPhone using the All Writs Act.
The FBI, as well as other law enforcement agencies from around the country, have been trying to get Apple to unlock its encrypted iPhones. The FBI made public the San Bernardino case against Apple because it wanted it to set a precedent that then would allow law enforcement to compel Apple to unlock its iPhones every time they ask.
That case is still in progress, but it looks like a New York judge may have already set a precedent, just not the one FBI would’ve liked. Judge James Orenstein ruled in a drug-related case that the more than two-century-old All Writs Act (AWA), written about 90 years before the lightbulb was invented, did not permit the government to do things that weren’t already prohibited in the law.
“I conclude that under the circumstances of this case, the government has failed to establish either that the AWA permits the relief it seeks or that, even if such an order is authorized, the discretionary factors I must consider weigh in favor of granting the motion,” said Judge Orenstein. “More specifically, the established rules for interpreting a statute's text constrain me to reject the government's interpretation that the AWA empowers a court to grant any relief not outright prohibited by law,” he added.
The judge also believes that compelling Apple to unlock the iPhone would indeed put too much burden on the company, something Apple has argued in the San Bernardino case as well. The company would have to create new software that would be used to update a specific iPhone or specific iPhones, and that software would also need to be highly secured so that hackers from all over the world can’t steal it once they know such software exists.
If Apple was compelled to do this, it could also hurt its business, as the company promotes its iPhones as highly secure devices. The government is arguing that Apple should now make them less secure.
"The assistance the government seeks here — bypassing a security measure that Apple affirmatively markets to its customers — is not something that Apple would normally do in the conduct of its own business and is, at least now, plainly offensive to it," Orenstein wrote.
This ruling comes right before Apple’s General Counsel, Bruce Sewell, has to appear in a Congressional hearing on encryption later today. This Court win should help Apple's arguments that the government can’t compel it to unlock its strongly secured devices.
Lucian Armasu is a Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware. You can follow him at @lucian_armasu.