Apple doesn't have to help FBI in New York iPhone case, judge says

Judge: US Can't Force Apple to Help Unlock NY iPhone

A federal judge in Brooklyn says the FBI cannot force Apple to open a locked iPhone used by a suspected drug dealer.

The ruling is a boost to Apple in the public opinion war with the federal government over access to locked devices. Though it is not binding on a judge in California who is now considering the separate case of access to a locked iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino attackers, it gives the company a leg up, and Apple will be sure to cite it in that ongoing dispute.

The massacre in San Bernardino, Calif., left 14 people dead, and investigators searching for answers.

U.S. Magistrate Judge James Orenstein said the FBI could not compel Apple to unlock the phone in the Brooklyn case, because Congress specifically considered and rejected a bill that would require companies like Apple to make the data on a locked iPhone available to law enforcement.

See images from the controversy over unlocking the San Bernardino terrorist's iPhone:

FBI battles with Apple over San Bernardino shooters' iPhone, social reax
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Apple doesn't have to help FBI in New York iPhone case, judge says
This is the most important tech case in a decade. Silence means @google picked a side, but it's not the public's.
I stand with Apple on privacy and FBI demand. It's not just marketing for @tim_cook and wasn't for Jobs.
4/5 But that’s wholly different than requiring companies to enable hacking of customer devices & data. Could be a troubling precedent
Apple has no problem trying to gather every bit of our personal data for marketing but obligated to protect privacy of dead mass murderers?
Any communications/tech CEO that isn't standing with Apple against the FBI is basically admitting that they've already been compromised.
Journalists: Crucial details in the @FBI v. #Apple case are being obscured by officials. Skepticism here is fair:
.@FBI “We want to get inside the iPhone no matter what.” @tim_cook “Not a chance.” FBI: “What if we made an album?” Tim: “I’m listening…”
Refusing access to #FBI shows terrorists they can get around FBI. Let's be clear: Apple is doing a service for our adversaries! #AppleVsFBI
"A man who is willing to trade security for liberty deserves neither." - Benjamin Franklin #AppleVsFBI #currentevents
The @FBI is creating a world where citizens rely on #Apple to defend their rights, rather than the other way around.
#AppleVsFBI is so much bigger than people realize. Keeping a close eye on this one
Speech can only be free when it is protected. —@mcuban #AppleVsFBI
#Apple #AppleVsFBI Thanks @tim_cook for taking a stand
I prefer dangerous freedom over peaceful slavery. Way to go #Apple. Born free staying free. #AppleVsFBI
Steve Jobs would've literally laughed in the FBI's face about them wanting Apple to create a backdoor to hack into a phone. #AppleVsFBI
Every candidate needs a mandatory 1 day crash course on encryption before poisoning public understanding of issue #GOPTownHall #AppleVsFBI
Keeping us safe by chipping away at our ability to preserve our right to privacy is the first step toward not being safe. @FBI #AppleVsFBI
So the company that put an entire U2 album onto my iPhone without asking is now all about privacy? #AppleVsFBI
There are no exceptions, we should never go down the slope of sacrificing privacy for the sake of security. #AppleVsFBI
Apple is right -- no matter how justified it may seem, turning over that data would set a terrible precedence. #ApplevsFBI
Thank you Tim Cook for making public a conflict that every citizen of the U.S. should be paying attention to. #AppleVsFBI
We should be less worried about apple and more worried about how the FBI can't get passed a locked iPhone #AppleVsFBI

What the government could not achieve in Congress, the judge said, it cannot now get from the courts. "The relief the government seeks is unavailable because Congress has considered legislation that would achieve the same result but has not adopted it.

Related: Why Are Apple and the FBI Battling Over an iPhone?

"It is also clear that the government has made the considered decision that it is better off securing such crypto-legislative authority from the courts," Orenstein said, "rather than taking the chance that open legislative debate might produce a result less to its liking."

Orenstein wrote that finding a balance between the competing interests of the governments investigative powers and unwarranted intrusion was a debate needs to take place sooner rather than later.

"The debate must happen today, and it must take place among legislators who are equipped to consider the technological and cultural realities of a world their predecessors could not begin to conceive," the judge wrote in the 50-page decision.

Judge Orenstein also agreed with Apple's contention that what the government wanted in the Brooklyn drug dealer case was too much of a burden on the company, another argument the company makes in the San Bernardino case.

"The assistance the government seeks here — bypassing a security measure that Apple affirmatively markets to its customers — is not something that Apple would normally do in the conduct of its own business and is, at least now, plainly offensive to it," Orenstein wrote.

Related: Apple CEO: Helping Unlock iPhone Would Be 'Bad for America'

The judge "completely sides with Apple," a senior Apple executive said in a conference call with reporters after the ruling. "It's the first case any court has had to directly and specifically address" the issues involved.

A Justice Department said in a statement that the government was disappointed and will seek review of the decision.

"Apple expressly agreed to assist the government in accessing the data on this iPhone — as it had many times before in similar circumstances — and only changed course when the government's application for assistance was made public by the court," the DOJ said. "This phone may contain evidence that will assist us in an active criminal investigation and we will continue to use the judicial system in our attempt to obtain it."

"This is a victory for privacy, security, and common sense," said Alex Abdo, staff attorney with the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project. "The government should not be able to run to court to get the surveillance power that Congress has deliberately kept from it. The future of digital privacy also hangs in the balance. If the government can force companies to weaken the security of their products, then we all lose."

Orenstein's ruling was expected, however, because he raised similar concerns in a preliminary discussion of the case issued last October.

READ MORE: Justice Clarence Smith breaks courtroom silence

At the time, Orenstein invited Apple to challenge the government's use of a 1789 law to compel Apple to help it recover iPhone data in criminal cases. Since then, lawyers say Apple has opposed the requests to help extract information from over a dozen iPhones in California, Illinois, Massachusetts and New York.

Monday's ruling comes a day before FBI Director James Comey and Apple's General Counsel, Bruce Sewell, appear before a congressional hearing.

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