In what can be considered a win for Apple’s battle to protect the privacy of its iPhone users, a New York judge ruled against the US government’s request to extract data from an iPhone by creating a "backdoor" that allows access to the phone.
Judge James Orenstein’s ruling marks the first time that the government’s legal argument to access data from devices such as the iPhone has been scrutinized within the court of law, and could ultimately help influence other cases where Apple is being compelled to create avenues of access for their devices and release information in order to aid government agencies with their investigation.
This ruling specifically addresses a drug case; however, the precedent can be extended to include the high profile case between Apple and the FBI, where the latter wants to hack into an iPhone allegedly used by one of the suspects in the San Bernardino mass shooting.
Since the attacks took place in San Bernardino, the F.B.I. received a warrant for the information that is stored on the iPhone; however, they have been unable to gain access to this data as a result of its encryption. As such, they turned to Apple for help.
They wanted to force Apple to create a backdoor into the phone’s operating system, and to that end, the U.S. government has invoked the All Writs Act of 1789.
A Win for Privacy
According to the New York judge, the use of the All Writs Act was an inflated effort by the government to force Apple’s hand to extract data from an iPhone that was seized in connection to the drug case i.e, it is extending the scope of the Act too far.
The iPhone case prompted Apple’s head executive, Timothy Cook, to come out and declare that Apple needs to protect the data of all their customers—leading to polarizing views from the public in relation to privacy in the context of security, and vice versa.
Despite winning the drug case issue, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the same turnout can be expected for the San Bernardino case. Bear in mind that the shooting is a bigger and more serious crime, which might prompt another judge to rule in the government’s favor instead.
Still, Apple asserts that, in the end, their assistance shouldn't be necessary. In a section titled, “The Government Has Not Demonstrated Apple’s Assistance Was Necessary To Effectuating The Warrant,” Apple asserts that the F.B.I. has failed to prove that Apple's assistance is necessary, and that the government should look to other, more appropriate agencies (like the NSA).
A third party cannot be compelled to assist the government unless the government is authorized to act and the third party’s participation is imperative.
Moreover, the government has not made any showing that it sought or received technical assistance from other federal agencies with expertise in digital forensics, which assistance might obviate the need to conscript Apple to create the back door it now seeks.
As such, the government has not demonstrated that “there is no conceivable way” to extract data from the phone.
Ultimately, Apple asserts that there is a difference between simply accessing data and developing systems that allow individuals (or organizations) to break into a device. They claim that the latter could easily fall into the wrong hands, allowing individuals to commit massive data breaches.
The ultimate fate of the San Bernardino phone has yet to be determined.