Apple fires back at FBI in New York iPhone case

Apple fires back at FBI in New York iPhone case
© Getty Images

Apple on Friday filed its response to the government’s continuing bid to force it to unlock the iPhone of a convicted drug trafficker in New York.

“The government requests this extraordinary relief notwithstanding … the likely minimal evidentiary value of any data on the phone (given that all defendants have pled guilty and the phone was seized and last used nearly two years ago); that Congress has never authorized the power to compel private parties that the government seeks here; and that the record is devoid of evidence that Apple’s assistance is necessary,” Apple lawyers wrote in the filing.


The government is currently appealing a recent decision by Magistrate Judge James Orenstein, which said that Apple could not be forced to comply with the request to help unlock defendant Jun Feng’s iPhone 5s.

The case was temporarily put on hold when the more high-profile dispute over the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone was unexpectedly resolved last month. The FBI backed out of that case after it found a way to access the device without Apple’s help.

But the same method won’t work on the New York device, the FBI said earlier this month.

“The government’s application is not moot, and the government continues to require Apple’s assistance in accessing the data that it is authorized to search by warrant,’’ prosecutors wrote in a letter to U.S. District Judge Margo Brodie.

Apple lawyers said Friday that the company would be pressing the government on what avenues it has explored to access the device without Apple’s assistance.

Apple opposed the order — as well as numerous others across the country — on the grounds that the assistance the FBI has requested would damage privacy and undermine the cybersecurity of its product for other users.

The San Bernardino case and the New York case have become a heated proxy for the long-running debate over the access that law enforcement should have into locked communications.

FBI Director James B. Comey has long argued that impenetrable encryption is stymieing investigations by locking out officials who have the appropriate warrants to access a suspect's device. But technologists and privacy advocates say that impenetrable encryption is indispensable to online security and privacy.

Apple argues that a decision in favor of the government would inappropriately broaden the scope of the 18-Century law that the FBI is seeking to use to compel the company to help it unlock the device.

In Friday’s filing, the company accused the government of using the All Writs Act to try to set a precedent — a criticism that has been leveled by other defenders of the company who believe the FBI is trying to force de facto encryption policy through the courts.

“While Apple strongly supports the efforts of law enforcement in pursuing criminals, the government’s sweeping interpretation of the All Writs Act is plainly incorrect and provides no limit to the orders the government could obtain in the future,” Apple lawyers wrote Friday.

“And that is precisely what the government seeks here: to obtain an order that it can use as precedent to lodge future, more onerous requests for Apple’s assistance,” they said.