The US government on Friday kept its encryption battle with Apple alive, pressing the high-tech giant to help crack an iPhone in a drug case in New York.
The move by the Justice Department comes after a high-stakes showdown between Apple and the FBI over access to the iPhone of a California gunman came to an abrupt end, when investigators said they had extracted the data on their own.
Key questions thus remain about law enforcement access to devices with strong encryption and how to balance that with user privacy rights — questions that could be answered if the government’s case in New York goes forward.
“The government continues to require Apple’s assistance in accessing the data that it is authorized to search by warrant,” Justice Department lawyers told US District Court Judge Margo Brodie in a written filing.
Apple lawyers said Friday they were disappointed by what amounted to an appeal by the government, arguing anew that it was an attempt to set a troubling legal precedent and not really a pursuit of vital information for fighting crime.
In the New York case, the accused drug trafficker confessed and is set to be sentenced, according to Apple attorneys. Apple is being asked to extract data from an iPhone and provide it for purposes of sentencing.
In contrast, in the San Bernardino case, the government called on Apple to create a new tool to bypass iPhone security systems to crack into an iPhone used by one of the shooters in a December shooting rampage that left 14 dead.
Apple holds its ground
Apple attorneys said they planned to oppose the government’s effort in the New York case by pressing in court to find out whether it has done everything possible without the company’s help to get the data it seeks and by continuing to argue the request is not backed by the law.
The US Drug Enforcement Agency and the FBI went to court in New York to compel Apple to help it break into an iPhone confiscated in June 2014 from a suspected methamphetamine trafficker, according to court documents.
The US government sought to get Apple to help break into the iPhone under the auspices of the All Writs Act — a 1789 law that gives wide latitude to law enforcement, and the same one cited in the San Bernardino case.
Apple on Friday maintained its position that the government was over-reaching its authority, and that the degree to which third parties can be compelled to work for the government was something that should be decided by elected lawmakers.
Earlier this year, a lower court judge in New York sided with Apple, saying law enforcement lacked the authority to compel the company to comply.
“The relief the government seeks is unavailable because Congress has considered legislation that would achieve the same result but has not adopted it,” US Magistrate Judge James Orenstein wrote.
The ruling signaled that Apple was on sound footing in the separate but similar San Bernardino battle. But that case was dropped when the FBI said an unnamed “outside party” had helped it access the data in the shooter’s phone.
Apple said it did not know what method, if any, the FBI had obtained to get into the iPhone in the San Bernardino case.
The California-based company said that whatever method the FBI may have found would be short-lived, given relentless upgrades to iPhone security.