NY Magistrate Rejects DOJ Request to Compel Apple to Extract iPhone Data

Published On: Mar. 02, 2016

Last Updated: Oct. 05, 2020

Can a judge issue an order requiring Apple to extract data from a locked iPhone based on the All Writs Act? On February 29, 2016, Magistrate Judge James Orenstein of the Eastern District of New York held that the All Writs Act does not provide such authority.

In his 50-page opinion, Judge Orenstein framed the question as “not whether the government should be able to force Apple to help it to unlock a specific device” but “whether the All Writs Act resolves that issue and many others like it yet to come.” He concluded that it was not “agreeable to the usages and principles of law” to compel Apple to perform work for the government against its will, as Apple is a private party with no alleged involvement in the owner of the iPhone’s criminal activity. In doing so, Judge Orenstein explained that Congress chose to define the bounds of mandatory law enforcement assistance in CALEA, and “[t]he absence from that comprehensive scheme of any requirement that Apple provide the assistance sought here implies a legislative decision to prohibit the imposition of such a duty.”  And that even if CALEA were not applicable, the government’s proposed interpretation of the All Writs Act – as limited only by explicit Congressional prohibitions – would lead to absurd and unconstitutional results:

[the All Writs Act] cannot be a means for the executive branch to achieve a legislative goal that Congress has considered and rejected.  But because such a rejection can take many forms, only one of which (and arguably the least likely in most circumstances) is outright prohibition, the government’s argument here is manifestly irreconcilable with the statute.

Although the court found that the All Writs Act did not provide a basis for granting the relief requested by the government based on the plain statutory requirements, it nevertheless analyzed the three discretionary factors under N.Y. Tel. Co. (a 1977 Supreme Court case interpreting the All Writs Act), finding that consideration of these factors led to the same result.

First, Judge Orenstein found that Apple was too far removed from the defendant’s criminal conduct to have any obligation to assist the government in its investigation. He rejected the government’s proposition that Apple was closely related by offering the iOS software on Apple devices as a licensed good, cautioning that “[i]n a world in which so many devices, not just smartphones, will be connected to the Internet of Things,” such theory “will result in a virtually limitless expansion of the government’s legal authority to surreptitiously intrude on personal privacy.”

Second, Judge Orenstein found that granting the relief requested by the government would impose an “unreasonable burden” on Apple – a burden encompassing financial costs, limitations on its autonomy, and an ever-increasing burden to comply with future requests. “Nothing in the government’s argument suggests any principled limit on how far a court may go in requiring a person or company to violate the most deeply-rooted values to provide assistance to the government the court deems necessary.”

Third, the court found that the government failed to meet its burden to show that Apple’s assistance was necessary because the government could not access the data on its own. The court pointed to government statements in other cases suggesting it could extract the data at issue.