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Aaron Burr's Clerk Gets Pulled Into Government's Legal Duel With Apple

Burr's clerk was ordered to decipher a coded letter.

Chip Somodevilla / Getty

The Justice Department conjured a historical figure to find legal precedent in its duel with Apple over encryption.

The government maintains that its request that Apple disable the security on a phone used by one of the San Bernardino assailants has plenty of legal precedent.


Take, for example, the 1807 treason trial of Aaron Burr, in which a clerk for the former vice president was ordered to decipher a coded letter — arguably a crude form of decryption.

Despite evidence that Burr had been plotting to raise a rebellion and overtake a portion of the western territories in the United States and other evidence that Burr was planning to lead an unauthorized invasion of Mexico, the defendant was acquitted by a jury on both the treason and high misdemeanor charges in trial presided over by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall.

The government would like to be clear: The FBI isn’t asking Apple to “provide decryption services” to the government — just move away the guard dogs so federal investigators could pick the lock without losing evidence to the phone’s auto-erase feature.

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