Feds Appeal Ruling Favoring Apple In Unlocking iPhone Data

The U.S. Justice Department yesterday asked a federal court to reverse a decision that Apple is not required to help open a locked iPhone, according to Business Insider. The ruling in question was issued by a U.S. judge in New York. It favors Apple in its objection to complying with an order to assist the government in accessing data from a phone used in the San Bernardino, Calif. terror attack.

Monday’s request comes a week after U.S. Magistrate Judge James Orenstein issued a decision in an unrelated drug case that undermines the Justice Department’s action against Apple.

Government lawyers said Monday said the request is not about asking Apple to do anything new or create a master key for iPhones. The prosecutors cited examples in which Apple has gained data from locked devices under the law.

Apple Challenges The Order

Apple has opposed the government’s demand to assist in the San Bernardino terrorist attack that killed 14 people on Dec. 2. Apple’s stance in that case has ignited a nationwide debate on digital privacy rights versus national security. Apple claims the government is seeking unprecedented power through the courts and undermining the company’s constitutional rights.

The Brooklyn, N.Y. case is less demanding on Apple. The extraction technique works on older iPhones and has been used in numerous instances to assist investigations.

Both the New York and California cases rest on the government’s interpretation of the All Writs Act.

The New York case presents a new challenge to federal courts that have been tasked with determining how a law that has been used to help investigators in the past complies with encryption and privacy in the digital age.

Feds Challenge Judge’s Ruling

The government Monday claimed that U.S. Magistrate Judge James Orenstein’s New York ruling is an “unprecedented limitation on” judicial authority and that the legal analysis goes “far afield of the circumstances of this case.” The government further noted that it has no adequate alternatives to gain Apple’s assistance since trying to guess the passcode would result in the phone’s auto-erase security feature.

Federal prosecutors gave several examples where Apple extracted data from a locked device while complying with the law. These examples included a New York child exploitation case, a Florida narcotics case and an exploitation case in Washington state.

Apple, in response, said Orenstein ruled that the FBI’s request would undermine fundamental Constitutional principles. Apple said it shares the judge’s concern that misuse of the All Writs Act would lead to a slippery slope that threatens everyone’s privacy and safety.

Orenstein in October invited Apple to contest the government’s use of the 1789 law that called on the company to assist the government in gaining iPhone data in criminal cases. Lawyers have since said Apple has opposed requests to help gain information from a dozen iPhones in New York, California, Massachusetts and Illinois.

In California, officials are seeking access to a phone used by the shooter Syed Farook but owned by San Bernardino County, where Farook was a health inspector.

Also read: New York bill would mandate backdoors into smartphones

FBI Keeps Pressing Apple

FBI Director James Comey told a Congressional panel last week the government wanted Apple to “take the vicious guard dog away and let us pick the lock” on the phone. If Apple creates the software to enable the FBI to hack the iPhone in California, Comey said it will take 26 minutes to do a “brute force attack,” testing numerous passcodes in fast succession.

Apple claimed that being coerced to get information from the phone could threaten the trust between the company and its customers, thereby tarnishing the company’s brand.

Lester Coleman is a veteran business journalist based in the United States. He has covered the payments industry for several years and is available for writing assignments.