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Apple-Justice Department Standoff Over iPhone Access Goes On, In New York

New York police officers monitor a pro-encryption demonstration at an Apple store in February.
Julie Jacobson
New York police officers monitor a pro-encryption demonstration at an Apple store in February.

Although the FBI says it has successfully unlocked the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino shooters, a separate legal standoff between Apple and the government continues — in a drug case in Brooklyn, N.Y.

The Justice Department told a judge Friday that Apple's help is still needed to unlock an iPhone seized from a methamphetamine dealer. The DOJ is appealing a ruling from a magistrate judge, who sided with Apple in February.

"The government continues to require Apple's assistance in accessing the data that it is authorized to search by warrant," U.S. Attorney Robert Capers wrote in a letter to U.S. District Court Judge Margo Brodie.

A comparison between the New York and the San Bernardino case isn't, well, apples to apples. The cases involve different types of iPhones that run different types of operating systems and require different types of technical assistance from the company.

After the FBI said it had unlocked — without Apple's help — the iPhone 5C running iOS 9 in the San Bernardino investigation, the bureau's ability to reuse its undisclosed unlocking method on other phones has been a major lingering question.

FBI Director James Comey said this week that the method, in fact, does not work on every iPhone. Specifically, he said it wouldn't work on the newer versions of the device, such as the iPhone 5S or iPhone 6. The case in New York involves an iPhone 5S running the iOS 7 operating system, which has older encryption technology.

The government says that for the New York phone, Apple already has the ability, in-house, to unlock that kind of device with that kind of operating system. And it's the kind of process that wouldn't require the company to write any new, special code that would undermine the phone's security features as in the San Bernardino case.

Apple doesn't actually dispute this claim but refuses to help because, as company lawyers explain, the legal request for a third party to contribute to a government investigation must be "necessary," as in no other way exists. After the unexpected and abrupt end of the San Bernardino case, the assertion has faced skepticism.

At the heart of both cases is the government's ability to compel a company's help and what kind of legal precedent gets set for new technology.

The Justice Department says Apple had previously complied with at least 70 orders for help unlocking its devices without objection, and that the Brooklyn case was the first in which Apple challenged such an order in court.

As NPR's Joel Rose has reported, it was a relatively unusual turn of events when the federal prosecutors in that case turned to a magistrate judge for an order compelling Apple's help — and the judge instead went public and asked Apple whether the company had any objections. The judge later ruled to block the DOJ's request, prompting the government to appeal.

Apple is now expected to file its brief in the case next week. The arrested methamphetamine dealer has pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.
Aarti Shahani is a correspondent for NPR. Based in Silicon Valley, she covers the biggest companies on earth. She is also an author. Her first book, Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares (out Oct. 1, 2019), is about the extreme ups and downs her family encountered as immigrants in the U.S. Before journalism, Shahani was a community organizer in her native New York City, helping prisoners and families facing deportation. Even if it looks like she keeps changing careers, she's always doing the same thing: telling stories that matter.