In a New York case, Magistrate Judge James Orenstein of the US District Court for the Eastern District of New York has ruled in favor of Apple, denying a government request for information on an iPhone. Orenstein had paused the request to allow Apple to file in opposition of the order because it involved the broad interpretation of a law that has been used to force private companies to comply with requests for user information.

The request to compel Apple to provide information on the iPhone was relatively routine (Apple has complied with these requests before,) but relied on an expanded interpretation of the All Writs Act (AWA) — which is currently also being used to try to force Apple to unlock an iPhone in a separate case in San Bernardino, California. In the NY case, Apple could provide information because the iPhone involved was running an older version of iOS, which allows it to extract data similar to an iPhone backup and provide that to the authorities with proper warrant for further analysis.

A senior Apple executive, commenting on the case in a press conference, said that an important precedent of opinion had been set by this ruling in NY that could apply to other cases like the one in California — while acknowledging that there was no binding legal precedent being set that would affect the San Bernardino case.

“…after reviewing the facts in the record and the parties’ arguments, I conclude that none of those factors justifies imposing on Apple the obligation to assist the government’s investigation against its will. I therefore deny the motion,” reads Orenstein’s order.

Orenstein concludes the ruling by explicitly laying out what many security experts have been talking about in the California case, where the FBI wants Apple to create software to help it crack an iPhone passcode. Namely, that this is absolutely not just about a ‘single device’, but instead whether the All Writs Act can be used to force compliance by private companies:

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. For the reasons set forth above, I conclude that it does not. The government’s motion is denied.

Orenstein has been using this case as an opportunity to rule on whether the All Writs Act allows private companies to be ‘automatically conscripted‘ in government investigations.

In the ruling, Orenstein questions whether interpreting the AWA as broadly as the government wanted to in this case could even be supported constitutionally:

As set forth below, I conclude that in the circumstances of this case, the government’s application does not fully satisfy the statute’s threshold requirements: although the government easily satisfies the statute’s first two elements, the extraordinary relief it seeks cannot be considered “agreeable to the usages and principles of law.” In arguing to the contrary, the government posits a reading of the latter phrase so expansive – and in particular, in such tension with the doctrine of separation of powers – as to cast doubt on the AWA’s constitutionality if adopted.

More information to follow

Here is the full ruling:

Orenstein Order

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