Judge sides with Apple over feds in New York

iphone lock screen

A federal magistrate-judge in New York City has ruled that the U.S. government can’t force Apple to hack an iPhone to investigate a drug dealer.

It’s a win for Apple, which is being pressured by federal law enforcement agents to help it break into iPhones in at least 13 instances across the country. Apple says doing the federal government’s bidding would undermine the security features in hundreds of millions of iPhones around the world.

So far, the Department of Justice is relying on the All Writs Act, passed in 1789, which basically says that judges can tell all people to follow the law.

Related: DOJ says Apple had routinely helped law enforcement

But on Monday, Judge James Orenstein said federal investigators can’t use that law to pull this off.

The U.S. government’s argument doesn’t justify “imposing on Apple the obligation to assist the government’s investigation against its will,” the judge wrote.

“[T]he 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,” Orenstein wrote. “[I]t is instead whether the All Writs Act resolves that issue and many others like it yet to come. … I conclude that it does not.”

This particular criminal case involves a methamphetamine dealer, Jun Feng, who was arrested in 2014 and cut a plea deal with prosecutors. Last year, the Drug Enforcement Agency got a search warrant to look through Feng’s iPhone 5C to track down his fellow drug dealers and customers. But the device is running the iOS 7, and agents couldn’t crack the passcode to see the data inside.

The DEA asked for Apple’s help, but Apple fought back. The company is facing pressure in 10 other cases nationwide to help agents break into 13 phones.

These cases are being closely watched, because they pit the federal government against the richest tech company on the globe.

In a well-publicized case involving the FBI trying to break into an iPhone 5C belonging to one of the San Bernardino shooters, Apple is arguing the U.S. government can’t force it to write code.

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