In a New York case, Magistrate Judge James Orenstein of the US District Court for the Eastern District of New York has ruled in favor of Apple, denying a government request for information on an iPhone. Orenstein had paused the request to allow Apple to file in opposition of the order because it involved the broad interpretation of a law that has been used to force private companies to comply with requests for user information.
The request to compel Apple to provide information on the iPhone was relatively routine (Apple has complied with these requests before,) but relied on an expanded interpretation of the All Writs Act (AWA) — which is currently also being used to try to force Apple to unlock an iPhone in a separate case in San Bernardino, California. In the NY case, Apple could provide information because the iPhone involved was running an older version of iOS, which allows it to extract data similar to an iPhone backup and provide that to the authorities with proper warrant for further analysis.
A senior Apple executive, commenting on the case in a press conference, said that an important precedent of opinion had been set by this ruling in NY that could apply to other cases like the one in California — while acknowledging that there was no binding legal precedent being set that would affect the San Bernardino case.
“…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. I therefore deny the motion,” reads Orenstein’s order.
The ruling is clear and concise, making the case that the All Writs Act cannot be stretched to cover the blanket license to compel private companies to extract customer data from locked devices that the government wants. The document makes a strong argument that there needs to be legislative ruling on the breadth of the All Writs Act. It even brings into question whether this interpretation of the AWA would be in violation of the 4th Amendment.
Specifically, Orenstein questions whether interpreting the AWA as broadly as the government wanted to in this case could even be supported constitutionally:
As set forth below, I conclude that in the circumstances of this case, the government’s application does not fully satisfy the statute’s threshold requirements: although the government easily satisfies the statute’s first two elements, the extraordinary relief it seeks cannot be considered “agreeable to the usages and principles of law.” In arguing to the contrary, the government posits a reading of the latter phrase so expansive – and in particular, in such tension with the doctrine of separation of powers – as to cast doubt on the AWA’s constitutionality if adopted.
The ruling also features some of the strongest footnote game I can recall in a ruling from a Judge.
In considering the burden the requested relief would impose on Apple, it is entirely appropriate to take into account the extent to which the compromise of privacy and data security that Apple promises its customers affects not only its financial bottom line, but also its decisions about the kind of corporation it aspires to be. The fact that the government or a judge might disapprove Apple’s preference to safeguard data security and customer privacy over the stated needs of a law enforcement agency is of no moment: in the absence of any other legal constraint, that choice is Apple’s to make, and I must take into account the fact that an order compelling Apple to abandon that choice would impose a cognizable burden on the corporation that is wholly distinct from any direct or indirect financial cost of compliance.
That, which pretty much negates the whole ‘Apple is doing this because it’s good for marketing’ argument that has been put forward by the FBI in CA, is a footnote to the actual ruling. Spicy.
Orenstein concludes the ruling by explicitly laying out what many security experts have been talking about in the California case, where the FBI wants Apple to create software to help it crack an iPhone passcode. Namely, that this is absolutely not just about a ‘single device’, but instead whether the All Writs Act can be used to force compliance by private companies:
Ultimately, 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; it is instead whether the All Writs Act resolves that issue and many others like it yet to come. For the reasons set forth above, I conclude that it does not. The government’s motion is denied.
Orenstein has been using this case as an opportunity to rule on whether the All Writs Act allows private companies to be ‘automatically conscripted‘ in government investigations.
A question was put to Apple during the call about whether Apple had ever signed a piece of software to assist in the de-encryption of information or extraction of said information from an iPhone. “Absolutely, unequivocally, no. We have not done that,” responded the Apple executive.
The New York case, which is about Apple giving the government access to information on an older locked iPhone, has implications for Apple’s fight in California. The California case involves the FBI trying to use the All Writs Act to force Apple to actually create new software which would weaken the security of its devices — something it argues the government has no authority to compel it to do. The iPhone belongs to San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook and we’ve covered the entire saga here.
This ruling, then, could influence the eventual decision in California, though many are assuming that it will eventually hit the Supreme Court. Apple has argued that it should be a congressional matter, to be decided by legislation, rather than the courts.
Here is the full ruling: