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New York judge blocks FBI demand for Apple help to unlock iPhone

Not for that iPhone, but judge says All Writs Act FBI likes doesn't apply

A New York magistrate has decided the All Writs Act isn't the right key to force the lock on a drug dealer's iPhone.

While the decision has no direct impact on the FBI-versus-Apple case in the San Bernardino investigation, it's being celebrated by some as at least representing judicial opinion that there are limits to government powers in cases regarding extraction of data from devices.

In the New York case, the feds have been asking Apple to unlock the iPhone of one Jun Feng, a suspected drug dealer, based on the arguments in the US All Writs Act (AWA). Feng has already entered a guilty plea and is due for sentencing in August.

With Feng's phone in hand but no way to unlock it, the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Agency wanted a New York magistrate – Judge James Orenstein – to use the AWA to grant access to the device.

Judge Orenstein has nixed the idea, at least in his jurisdiction, on the grounds that the act can't be used to force Apple to manipulate its products. In his ruling on Monday, [PDF], the judge wrote:

The implications of the government’s position are so far-reaching – both in terms of what it would allow today and what it implies about Congressional intent in 1789 – as to produce impermissibly absurd results.

He added that to give the FBI and DEA what they wanted could end up with such a great expansion of government powers, it would put the AWA's constitutionality in doubt.

The judge added that since Apple has no responsibility for Feng's wrongdoing, he could not justify "imposing on Apple the obligation to assist the government's investigation against its will."

Because the US government has decided that backdoors are a hill worth dying on – especially in the San Bernardino case, where it reckons dead terrorist Syed Farook will be even more dead if it can open the phone – it's going to appeal the New York decision. ®

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