All is quiet at the moment in the battle between Apple and the federal government. The tech giant and the feds, up until recently, were preparing to go to court to determine whether or not Apple could be compelled to assist the government in unlocking two iPhones seized during criminal investigations, one in California and one in New York.
Though the majority of media coverage has been focused on the California court battle over the iPhone 5C that belonged to San Bernardino shooter, Syed Rizwan Farook, the push back by Apple actually began last year in New York. In October of 2015, the federal prosecutors in a New York drug case requested a court order from Magistrate Judge James Orenstein for Apple to unlock an iPhone 5s that had been seized by the DEA. The phone belonged to Jun Feng, who had already pleaded guilty to charges in the case. However, according to the Wall Street Journal, "both sides agreed the legal dispute surrounding the phone still need[ed] to be resolved."
Judge Orenstein, in response to the government's request, issued "an 11-page memo . . . that prosecutors were misusing the All Writs Act" and he asked Apple to weigh in on the issue. Apple did so and sided with the judge. In late February of 2016, he issued his ruling in the case, denying the government's request. According to the New York Times, this is "the first time that the government's legal argument for opening up devices like the iPhone ha[d] been put to the test." The decision is important because it could be influential in future cases dealing with this issue. In the ruling, Judge Orenstein stated that "the government was inflating its authority by using the All Writs Act to force Apple to extract data from an iPhone seized in connection with a drug case." The All Writs Act is a statute that was passed in 1789 that states "courts can require actions to comply with their orders when not covered by existing law." Orenstein questioned whether the government's view of the Act would even be constitutional if it were to be adopted, as it is so broad.
Prior to this case, Apple had routinely complied with government requests for assistance in obtaining information from locked phones. In fact, it had complied with requests 70 times before. Judge Orenstein stated that that he was puzzled that Apple had not previously contested orders, stating to Apple's attorneys, "You have had apparently 70 prior instances where you have not taken the steps available to you."
In April 2016, the government stated that is was not backing down and it was still going to ask for a court order to compel Apple to open the phone. Apple responded that it was going to request the government to specifically show why only Apple could help them gain access to the phone. An attorney for the company stated that they would "try to force the government to answer specific questions about its phone-hacking efforts, including what companies and government agencies it has consulted with and what methods it has tried."
However, the government dropped its request after authorities obtained the passcode to the suspect's phone. This is the second time the government has found a way to access an iPhone after requesting Apple's help. In the San Bernardino case, a third party came forward with a method to get into Farook's phone.
It is likely that a case in the future, perhaps one of the other requests that Apple has objected to, will actually end up requiring a court ruling. For now, the issue lies dormant, waiting for the perfect test case to awaken it once more.
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