The battle between the FBI and Apple isn’t over yet.
The US Department of Justice filed a court document declaring that it will not modify its request to seek Apple’s assistance in unlocking an iPhone 5s related to a drug investigation in New York.
While the Brooklyn request has been overshadowed by the San Bernardino case, in which the FBI tried to legally compel Apple to assist in unlocking a terrorist’s iPhone, the implications of both legal battles are similar.
In both instances, the US federal government is asking for Apple’s help unlocking iPhones that contain data that may be pertinent to investigations. The company would need to dedicate extensive resources in order to help authorities, especially if it has to create software to unlock phone’s owned by criminals. Apple would be forced to weaken its own security.
The DOJ’s decision to continue its New York court battle comes only weeks after the FBI unexpectedly dropped its case against Apple. The FBI claims it was able to unlock the San Bernardino shooter’s phone with the help of an unnamed third party, and no longer needed Apple’s help. Although the New York drug offender’s phone is older than the San Bernardino shooter’s, and should therefore be easier to unlock, it appears that the government is determined to set a legal precedent on the issue.
Earlier this week, FBI director (and noted clown) James Comey alluded to today’s decision by the Justice Department when he said that the FBI’s method for unlocking the iPhone 5c running iOS 9 would not work on other phones.
“This doesn’t work on sixes, doesn’t work on a 5s,” Comey reportedly said while speaking to a group of students at Kenyon College in Ohio. “So we have a tool that works on a narrow slice of phones.”
In late February, in the same case, a New York judge ruled that the government could not compel Apple to create software that will weaken its security protections. Judge James Ornstein pulled no punches in the ruling saying the implications were so far-reaching it could “produce impermissibly absurd results“. The Justice Department has asked a higher judge to review the case.
“The Department of Justice has made the same application, for the same assistance, from the same company, dozens of times before,” said the government in a court filing. The phone in Brooklyn reportedly runs on iOS 7, which Apple has routinely accessed on behalf of the government according to the prosecutor’s brief.
Privacy advocates argue that forcing tech companies to create new tools to help federal investigations will actually hurt everyone’s digital security and privacy. Of course, the government argues that it can better protect everyone if these companies cooperate.