A federal judge presiding over a case in New York has decided in favor of Apple by refusing to grant the US government access to the contents of an iPhone. The iPhone in question is not that of the San Bernardino shooter, but rather a different iPhone that the FBI was seeking to open in relation to an ongoing drugs case. The decision, however, might impact the secondary case by setting a precedent concerning the use of the All Writs Act; which the US government had been hoping to call on in the other case.
The decision was made by Magistrate Judge James Orenstein in New York’s Eastern District and is a win for privacy activists everywhere. Activists, who have been urging the US court system to make the right decisions and support Apple in its quest to keep the iPhone’s encryption safe for its customers.
In Apple’s opinion, some of the requests that the FBI have made are impossible. Firstly, because it is being asked to create a new piece of software that currently does not exist, and secondly because writing the special tool that the FBI has requested (in the San Bernardino case) would amount to cracking its own software; against the will of company shareholders.
According to Judge Orenstein, despite the fact that the FBI believes the contents of the phone would have helped to prosecute in the drug case, the All Writs Act could not be used to open the iPhone in question ( a different model to the one involved in the San Bernadino case.). This is because, in the Judge’s eyes, the Justice Department had overstepped the original meaning of the 1789 Act’s purpose by attempting to force Apple to open the iPhone with it,
‘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.’
In fact, this is just one of nine total cases (of which the San Bernardino shooting is only one) in which Apple is being requested to open up iPhones to allow US intelligence services to pursue criminal investigations. With this case now standing in Apple’s favour, it would appear that the All Writs Act may not so easily be called on (in any of those cases) for forcing Apple to comply with government requests. Whether that be to supply data from iPhone’s, or when it be to provide the FBI with the special tool.
According to Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, the tool that the FBI have requested in the San Bernardino case (which would strip the iPhones encryption of essential safety features), can not be created on a one-off basis. According to Cook, this means that making the tool would effectively destroy the encryption in every iPhone; making them unsafe for Apple customers.
‘Once created, the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices,’ said Cook in a letter to customers. Continuing by explaining that if the FBI won the right to open iPhones it would no doubt begin to do so a lot more in future, because the authorities ‘have hundreds of iPhones they want Apple to unlock if the F.B.I. wins this case.’
Just last Friday, Apple shareholders showed their support for Cook’s decision by standing to give him an ovation at the shareholders meeting in Cupertino California – before he even started his speech. After the meeting, one of the shareholders, a Rev. Jesse L. Jackson made the following statement in support of the Apple CEO,
‘Where we stand in times of controversy is a measure of our character. Some leaders only follow opinion polls. Others stand up for their principles, refuse to compromise, and mold opinion. We have such a leader of Apple, Tim Cook.’
Of course, not everybody agrees with this stance. Microsoft’s Bill Gates (who has in the past sided with Apple and other tech giants when it comes to privacy) has now turned a corner and come out in favour of helping the FBI with criminal investigations. A week ago, Gates said that handing over information to the FBI was no different to handing over phone records, saying that the San Bernardino case is ‘a specific case where the government is asking for access to information.’
Despite this statement, however, it is not clear where Gates’ stands on the issue of Apple being asked to create a tool for the FBI that would allow them to crack iPhones – at will – in the future. Let it not be forgotten that unlike what Gates is implying, Apple receives vast amounts of requests to be given data from iPhones. Sometimes that data is readily available and on those occasions, Apple has many times aided the government in their investigations. In the first six months of 2015, for example, Apple claims it received around 11,000 requests from government agencies worldwide for information on roughly 60,000 devices; information that it was able to help with in about 7,100 cases.
Whether this ruling will have any effect on the San Bernardino case in California remains to be seen. It is worth noting, however, that despite the decision against being able to use the All Writs Act on this occasion, the ruling in the New York court is not directly applicable to the ongoing case in California, and is, in fact, not binding in any other US court whatsoever.