A federal judge has ruled that the US Justice Department cannot use a 227-year-old law to force Apple to provide the FBI with access to locked iPhone data, dealing a blow to the government in its battle with the company over privacy and public safety.
The ruling, by US Magistrate Judge James Orenstein, yesterday applied narrowly to one Brooklyn drug case, but it gives support to the company's position in its fight against a California judge's order that it create specialised software to help the FBI hack into an iPhone linked to the San Bernardino terrorism investigation.
Orenstein belittled some government arguments, saying attorneys were stretching an old law "to produce impermissibly absurd results."
He rejected government claims that Apple was only concerned with public relations. He said he found no limit on how far the government would go to require a person or company to violate the most deeply-rooted values.
And he said claims that Apple must assist the government because it reaped the benefits of being an American company "reflects poorly on a government that exists in part to safeguard the freedom of its citizens."
Both cases hinge partly on whether a law written long before the computer age, the 1789 All Writs Act, could be used to compel Apple to cooperate with efforts to retrieve data from encrypted phones.
"Ultimately, the question to be answered in this matter, and in others like it across the country, is not whether the government should be able to force Apple to help it unlock a specific device; it is instead whether the All Writs Act resolves that issue and many others like it yet to come," Orenstein wrote. "I conclude that it does not."
Apple's opposition to the government's tactics has evoked a national debate over digital privacy rights and national security.
On Thursday, the Cupertino, California-based company formally objected to the California order, accusing the federal government of seeking "dangerous power" through the courts and of trampling on the company's constitutional rights.
The separate California case involves an iPhone 5C owned by San Bernardino County and used by Syed Farook, who was a health inspector.
Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik killed 14 people during a December 2 attack that was at least partly inspired by the Islamic State group. The couple died later in a gun battle with police.
Orenstein, ruling with an eye to the California case, referenced it multiple times in a 50-page ruling and noted that the government request there was far more "intrusive."
The New York case features a government request far less onerous for Apple and its cellphone technology; the extraction technique exists for that older operating system and it's been used before some 70 times before to assist investigators.