DOJ Appeals New York iPhone Unlock Rejection

The U.S. Department of Justice is appealing a ruling in New York where a judge refused to grant a court order forcing Apple to unlock an iPhone. Like the San Bernardino case where a judge did approve the DOJ's request, agents cited the All Writs Act from 1789 as the basis for the request—although this time that argument didn't fly.

DOJ appeals New York ruling denying iPhone unlock orderDOJ appeals New York ruling denying iPhone unlock order

In the New York case, Federal agents asked the court for an order compelling Apple to help unlock an iPhone seized as part of an investigation into Jun Feng and a methamphetamine distribution conspiracy. They're hoping the iPhone's encrypted data includes the names of fellow conspirators.

The San Bernardino case, where a Federal judge did approve a similar order, relates to a mass shooting where Syed Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik killed 14 of their county coworkers at a holiday party and injured 22 others. The court order says Apple must create a version of iOS for the FBI that removes the ten try limit for entering passcodes, removes the data self destruct feature that kicks in after hitting the failed passcode entry cap, removes the forced time delay between failed passcode attempts, and adds in a way to automate entering passcodes.

Apple filed a motion to vacate that order along with a formal objection, calling the order an overreach of authority, a threat to privacy and security, and a dangerous precedent. The FBI and DOJ initially claimed the order was a one-off request, but later reversed course saying it would open the door for similar requests. Already we've seen this New York case, the DOJ said it has several others waiting the outcome of the San Bernardino case, and the Manhattan District Attorney confirmed he has a long list of cases where he wants iPhone unlocking orders.

Apple cited the New York ruling in its formal objection to the San Bernardino court order. The company also commented on the court's denial for an unlock order in New York saying had it been granted it would "thoroughly undermine fundamental principles of the Constitution."

The DOJ, or course, doesn't see it that way and feels Apple should unlock Mr. Feng's iPhone. "Apple has the technological capability to bypass the passcode feature and access the contents of the phone that were unencrypted," the DOJ said in its filing, according to Reuters.

The twist in the New York case is that Mr. Feng failed Crime Lord 101 training by failing to upgrade from iOS 7 to iOS 8 or iOS 9. Apple started encrypting all data with iOS 8, which means the company potentially could access more information from Mr. Feng's phone that it otherwise would be able to had he upgraded from iOS 7.

That could play to the DOJ's favor, although the real question here is whether or not the government has the authority to compel Apple—and by extension, other technology companies—to bypass its own security measures designed to protect user data and privacy.