Apple: Why Should We Help Unlock iPhone Of Someone Who Has Already Pled Guilty?

Image courtesy of Prime Number

With the U.S. Department of Justice still attempting to compel Apple to unlock the iPhone of a drug suspect, the tech giant is asking the court why this is so important when the former owner of that iPhone has already pled guilty.

This is the case where the government originally sought a court order from a federal magistrate judge, seeking to require Apple assist in unlocking the suspect’s device under the All Writs Act — a piece of law that dates back to 1789 that allows a court compel a person or group to assist in the enforcement of a court order — but only if that assistance is both necessary and “agreeable to the usages and principles of law.”

In February, that magistrate judge shot down the government’s request, concluding that the prosecutors’ application of the All Writs Act went too far, and that Apple’s connection to the case was too tangential to force the company to aid in unlocking the iPhone.

But earlier this month, the DOJ notified the court that it “continues to require Apple’s assistance in accessing the data that it is authorized to search by warrant,” and asked a District Court judge to consider its All Writs Act request.

In a memorandum of law [PDF] filed on Friday by Apple, the company accuses the DOJ of ignoring the “inconvenient fact” of the magistrate judge’s clear rejection by asking the court to effectively start the entire process over again.

Apple contends that the odds are slim that unlocking the iPhone in this case will provide anything of evidentiary value “given that all defendants have pled guilty and the phone was seized and last used nearly two years ago.”

Even if the government does believe it still needs to access the information on the iPhone, Apple argues that the DOJ “utterly failed” to meet one of the All Writs Act requirements — that Apple’s assistance is necessary.

“The government has made no showing that it has exhausted alternative means for extracting data from the iPhone at issue here,” writes Apple. “Indeed, the government has gone so far as to claim that it has no obligation to do so,” even though there are reportedly third parties that can provide work-around solutions for iPhones running the older version of iOS on the suspect’s device.

Apple also argues that the government is misrepresenting the All Writs Act and what it allows the court to do. The DOJ has previously claimed that its application of the law to iPhones and other devices was within the scope of the law because Congress had not yet explicitly said otherwise.

But Apple counters that “It simply is not the case that federal courts can issue any order the executive branch dreams up unless and until Congress expressly prohibits it… If the government’s view is correct, Congress would never need to pass permissive legislation in the law enforcement context because everything would be on the table until explicitly prohibited. That may be what the government prefers, but it is not the legal system in which it operates.”

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