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Apple Clashes With New York Court Over Unlocking an iPhone

March 8, 2016 - Written By Dominik Bosnjak

Although it was just last week that James Orenstein, a New York magistrate judge ruled in Apple’s favor regarding FBI’s recent request for Apple to unlock a certain iPhone 5S, the federal prosecutor is now asking for a more senior, district judge to overrule that decision. Orenstein explained that he doesn’t want to help the “virtually limitless expansion of the government’s legal authority to surreptitiously intrude on personal privacy”, especially considering the relatively finalized state of this specific case. Namely, the owner of the aforementioned iPhone is one Jun Feng who has already pleaded guilty to drug dealing charges and the future legal proceedings he’s facing are now only a matter of determining the length of his sentence.

However, the prosecution is not happy with that decision and is insisting that its investigation is still not over as it apparently still needs access to Feng’s iPhone. The government legal representatives also didn’t fail to remind the court that Apple can unlock the device in question without any issues because it runs the older iOS 7, unlike the already infamous iPhone 5C belonging to one of San Bernardino shooters responsible for killing 14 people in December. To quickly recap the events that occurred last month, Apple was asked to unlock the said device by FBI and refused, and what ensued was a whole lot of public controversy and debate around encryption and user privacy. This issue is so huge that even the company’s direct competitors are rallying around Apple in order to support its legal battle against the government. The New York prosecutors are insisting that this is exactly why Apple fought the aforementioned order to unlock Feng’s phone because as they have pointed out, the tech giant has complied with numerous similar requests in the past and is now only refusing to cooperate to keep up with its recently reinforced image of a company which protects user privacy.

However, that isn’t exactly so. In the last couple of years, Apple not only stripped itself of the ability to bypass passcode lockouts with the launch of iOS 8 but also started offering a lot more resistance in court regarding government requests for unlocks of devices running older versions of iOS, like the one belonging to Feng. This case is significant because it not only marks the first time Apple directly and openly refused to grant access to a locked iPhone but also the first time a federal judge decided in favor of its privacy-oriented stance. And while this New York case pre-dates the California one regarding the 2015 terrorist attack in San Bernardino which prompted the recent privacy debate in the US, prosecutions in both are trying to invoke the somewhat ambiguous 18th-century All Writs Act in order to force Apple to comply with their unlock requests. The legal and subsequent privacy drama will certainly continue as the California case is being heard in court this month and recent reports suggest that the US Senate wants to criminalize decryption refusal.