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New York court rejects FBI argument for breaking iPhone lockscreen

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Apple just won a major victory in an iPhone warrant case — although it may not help the company in its San Bernardino trial. The victory comes from a New York district court that's been facing something legally similar to the higher-profile warrant case playing out in San Bernardino. In a 50-page ruling, Magistrate Judge Orenstein found that the All Writs Act did not justify the government's request, and denied the government's request to legally compel Apple's help.

In denying the request, Orenstein finds the government's interpretation of the All Writs Act is so broad as to be unconstitutional:

The extraordinary relief [the government] seeks cannot be considered "agreeable to the usages and principles of law." In arguing to the contrary, the government posits a reading of the latter phrase so expansive – and in particular, in such tension with the doctrine of separation of powers – as to cast doubt on the AWA's constitutionality if adopted.

the ruling echoes many of the arguments put forward by Apple

The ruling doesn't have any direct effect on the San Bernardino case, but it gives Apple a much stronger hand if the California District Court finds in the government's favor. If Apple loses the California case, the presence of an opposing New York ruling will also be very helpful in pushing for an appeal. The new ruling centers on exactly the same question as the California case — can the All Writs Act compel Apple's help in breaking a locked phone? — and while it's not binding on the California judge, it can still be influential. In fact, Orenstein's ruling echoes many of the arguments put forward by Apple in the San Bernardino case, particularly the argument that Congress had already explicitly denied the government these powers when it passed the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act in 1994.

The ruling also illustrates the dangers of trying similar cases in different courts simultaneously. Prior to the San Bernardino order, the New York case had been the central legal venue for the FBI's anti-encryption initiatives, and the case has continued more or less unaffected by the higher profile California trial. Orenstein made headlines last week when he asked Apple to detail other federal cases in which law enforcement had sought to legally compel Apple's assistance in unlocking a phone. Apple replied with a brief detailing more than a dozen such cases, indicating the broad scope of the FBI's efforts.

The ruling isn't binding, but could be influential

There are a number of differences between the New York and California cases, although it's unclear how legally significant they will be. The biggest difference is the central offense: the New York case is prosecuting a methamphetamine smuggler, while the California case focuses on a terrorism-linked office shooting in a health clinic. But while that plays a major role in the politics of the cases, it shouldn't effect the fundamental legal questions involved, which are the same regardless of the initial offense. The phone involved in the New York case was also running iOS 7, before more extensive encryption measures took effect in iOS 8.

The other difference is the specificity of the request. The California case detailed extensive specifications for how to break lockscreen protections (the so-called GovtOS), whereas the New York case merely requested general assistance in unlocking the phone. In a call with reporters after the ruling, senior Apple executives counted that as a point in their favor. "In the California case, we're being asked to create something that does not exist. We're essentially being asked to hack our own phones," executives said. "Because the issue in San Bernardino is iOS 8, the burden the government is trying to impose upon Apple is far more onerous than the situation in New York."