Apple scored a major legal victory in its ongoing battle against the FBI on Monday when a federal magistrate judge in New York rejected the U.S. government’s request as part of a drug case to force the company to help it extract data from a locked iPhone. The ruling from U.S. Magistrate Judge James Orenstein was issued as part of the criminal case against Jun Feng, who pleaded guilty in October to drug charges. It is a significant boost to Apple’s well-publicized campaign to resist the FBI’s similar efforts in the case of the San Bernardino killers.
In the case that gave rise to Monday’s ruling, the Drug Enforcement Administration had seized — but, even after consultation with the FBI, claimed it was unable to access — Feng’s iPhone 5. The DEA and FBI said they could not overcome security measures embedded in Apple’s operating system. The government thus filed a motion seeking an order requiring “Apple to assist” the investigation “under the authority of the All Writs Act” — the same 1789 law the FBI is invoking in the San Bernardino case — by “help[ing] the government bypass the passcode security.” Apple objected, noting that there were nine other cases currently pending in which the government was seeking a similar order.
Judge Orenstein applied previous legal decisions interpreting the AWA and concluded that the law does not “justif[y] imposing on Apple the obligation to assist the government’s investigation against its will.” In a formulation extremely favorable to Apple, the judge wrote that the key question raised by the government’s request is whether the AWA allows a court “to compel Apple — a private party with no alleged involvement in Feng’s criminal activity — to perform work for the government against its will.”