Justice Department Asks Judge to Review Pro-Apple Ruling in iPhone Case


The Justice Department on Monday asked a federal judge to reverse an earlier ruling and order Apple Inc. to help extract data from an iPhone—part of a hotly contested legal dispute between Washington and Silicon Valley over issues of privacy and security. The filing in a Brooklyn, N.Y., case was expected after Magistrate James Orenstein concluded that prosecutors lacked legal authority to compel Apple to help investigators bypass the passcode feature on a drug dealer’s iPhone. That decision was quickly cited by Apple in a legal fight over an iPhone used by one of the shooters in the San Bernardino, Calif., terror attack in December that killed 14 and wounded 22 others. In that case, Apple is fighting a court order to help the Federal Bureau of Investigation bypass the passcode of the seized phone, saying to do so would make millions of other iPhones more vulnerable to hackers or government surveillance. The stakes are high for both sides, and they are preparing for the possibility the legal questions eventually will reach the Supreme Court. In the New York case, prosecutors on Monday asked U.S. District Judge Margo Brodie to take a new look at the issue and grant them the court order that Magistrate Orenstein denied.

“This case in no way upends the balance between privacy and security,’’ the federal prosecutors argue in the new filing. In a 50-page ruling last week, Magistrate Orenstein said the Justice Department’s use of the All Writs Act, a 1789 law, to compel Apple to help investigators open a smartphone was an unconstitutional overreach. Congress, he found, had specifically considered granting such authority to the government but decided not to do so. Judges previously had approved dozens of such requests, but late last year Apple began resisting those efforts. There are now more than a dozen iPhones seized in federal investigations where prosecutors are seeking Apple’s help in unlocking data. Prosecutors argue that Judge Orenstein overlooked the specifics of the drug case to focus on unfounded fears of future abuses of power. The ruling “goes far afield of the circumstances of this case and sets forth an unprecedented limitation on federal courts’ authority,’’ the prosecutors wrote. In its filing, the government also denies it could hack into the phone but chooses not to. “The government’s ability to bypass the passcode of an Apple iPhone is highly device-specific, and depends in part on the specific hardware and software in place,’’ prosecutors wrote. “Judge Orenstein ruled the FBI’s request would ‘thoroughly undermine fundamental principles of the Constitution’ and we agree,” an Apple spokesman said. “We share the Judge’s concern that misuse of the All Writs Act would start us down a slippery slope that threatens everyone’s safety and privacy.”

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