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Apple Victorious in Another Phone Unlocking Case

This case considered whether the All Writs Act can be used to compel Apple to unlock a phone.

Composite image by Re/code

A federal judge in New York has handed Apple a victory in a request that it unlock an iPhone — a decision that comes just as a California judge is preparing to hear a similar dispute over a phone used by one of the San Bernardino attackers.

Judge James Orenstein ruled Monday that the 200-plus-year-old All Writs Act can’t be used to force Apple to unlock the phone in a 2014 case involving drug trafficking. However, it leaves open the larger question of whether the government can otherwise compel the company to do so.

“That debate must happen today, and it must take place among legislators who are equipped to consider the technological and cultural realities of a world their predecessors could not begin to conceive,” Orenstein wrote. “It would betray our constitutional heritage and our people’s claim to democratic governance for a judge to pretend that our founders already had that debate, and ended it, in 1789.”

Apple is laying out a similar argument in its efforts to combat a judge’s order that it help federal investigators unlock a phone used by Syed Farook in the Dec. 2 attack that left 14 people dead. The company makes several arguments, including one that the government can’t use the All Writs Act to give law enforcement powers that Congress expressly withheld.

Orenstein’s decision comes as Apple’s general counsel prepares to testify before the House Judiciary Committee on the subject of encryption — and how to resolve the tensions between the need to safeguard consumers from hackers and cyber criminals and law enforcement’s desire to gain access to possibly incriminating information locked on a suspect’s phone.

In the New York case, the federal government sought Apple’s help in unlocking an iPhone 5s used by the suspect, Jun Feng — something, the court notes, had happened at least 70 times before. Feng pleaded guilty, but the case continued because the government argued the device might yield information about suppliers or customers.

Apple also urged the court to continue hearing the matter, noting it had received nine requests from across the country in which the government sought help in bypassing the passcode security on a dozen devices. That was before the case in San Bernardino.

Orenstein rejected the government’s use of the All Writs Act to force Apple’s hand, writing that it was seeking to apply the law so broadly as to “cast doubt on the [All Writs Act’s] constitutionality.”

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