Brooklyn Judge Rules Apple Can’t Be Forced To Unlock iPhone – Company Gains Legal Leverage Against FBI?

A federal judge in Brooklyn has sided with Apple and denied a Department of Justice request to have an iPhone forcibly unlocked. The ruling could offer strong leverage to Apple Inc. against its ongoing legal battle with the FBI over similar reasons.

While the ruling is connected with a New York Drug case, it could have a significant impact on the Cupertino-based company’s fight with the U.S. government over the San Bernardino killer’s currently-locked iPhone. The ruling undeniably bolsters Apple’s arguments that it cannot offer ways to bypass security deployed on its devices.

Magistrate Judge James Orenstein clearly sided with Apple Inc. when he ruled that the government cannot insist the company offer tools that override the digital security the company has incorporated into its iPhones. Orenstein ruled government lawyers failed to establish that the federal All Writs Act, which the government relied on to seek the order, applies to this particular case.

He was referring to an ancient a law from 1789.

The law, all of two sentences, reads, “The Supreme Court and all courts established by Act of Congress may issue all writs necessary or appropriate in aid of their respective jurisdictions and agreeable to the usages and principles of law.”

The ruling from U.S. Magistrate Judge James Orenstein was issued as part of the criminal case against Jun Feng, who pleaded guilty in October to drug charges, reported the Intercept. The case, though circumstantially different, has the same core. In both the cases, law enforcement officials are unable to bypass security measures that Apple incorporates in its devices, which happens to be an iPhone. While the Department of Justice (DoJ) and FBI insisted Apple provide unbridled access to a secure iPhone, the same request was made by the DEA and FBI saying they could not overcome security measures embedded in Apple’s operating system.

Unable to get past the seemingly impenetrable security, the government filed a motion seeking an order requiring “Apple to assist” the investigation “under the authority of the All Writs Act” by “help[ing] the government bypass the passcode security.” Incidentally, this is the same legal weapon the FBI invoked in the San Bernardino case.

Interestingly, the ruling in the New York drug case has been based on the applicability of the archaic 1789 law.

“The question 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 to come.”

Needless to say, Monday’s ruling is quite crucial for Apple. The company has strongly refused to offer any assistance in providing a tool that can override the security. Apple CEO Tim Cook had likened order for creation of hack the tool to creating cancer. He said the tool would undoubtedly be used repeatedly and eventually would end up on the internet, rendering useless all the security measures the company has so painstakingly incorporated into the iPhone. Multiple companies have rallied behind Apple by offering to submit “Amicus Brief.”

There are about nine such cases pending in various courts that need a tool that bypasses the security measures and gives law enforcement officials complete access to the data on the phone. Officials cannot force their way into the phone since multiple wrong entries could wipe the contents of the phone, rendering it useless from a legal perspective, reported USA Today.

Incidentally, the case in which the judge sided with Apple had the defendant already plead guilty. However, the Justice Department still believes the phone may contain evidence that “will assist us in an active criminal investigation,” reported Yahoo News.

[Photo by Bryan Thomas/Getty Images]