The Justice Department on Monday appealed a federal judge’s ruling in New York that Apple did not have to help the government access a locked iPhone belonging to a drug dealer, a case that has taken on broader significance as authorities and the tech firm wage an ongoing argument over encryption.
While the New York case is separate from the more high-profile debate in California over an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino attackers, both cases focus on whether the All Writs Act from 1789 can be applied to situations involving encrypted data stored on personal devices.
Magistrate Judge James Orenstein in Brooklyn ruled last week that the act could not be used as the basis for a court order demanding a company help authorities access a person’s encrypted data.
Federal prosecutors pushed back on Monday, writing in their filing that the government wants “Apple to perform a simple task: something that Apple can easily do, that it has done many times before, and that will have no effect on the security of its products or the safety of its customers.”
Orenstein wrote last week that the All Writs Act does not apply in cases where Congress did not establish the government’s authority to seek this type of help. He also wrote in his opinion that the All Writs Act does not actually answer the question of whether the government could force Apple to help it unlock a specific device.
The New York and California cases are different in key ways. While the San Bernardino investigation hinges on a terrorist attack that killed 14 people and injured 22 others, the New York case centers on a man who pleaded guilty to intending to distribute methamphetamine and said he sold crystal meth with unspecified “other people.”
The locked phones also differ: In New York, the iPhone is a 5S running iOS7, an older operating system than the iOS9 found on the San Bernardino phone. Phones running the newer operating systems — including iOS9 — were designed to keep Apple from bypassing the passcode to access the device’s data. As a result, the technical demands being made of Apple in both cases are not the same.
In their filing Monday in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, prosecutors said that Apple is being asked to do something it has done “dozens of times, in response to lawful court orders like the one sought here, with no claim that doing so put customer data or privacy in harm’s way.”
“This case in no way upends the balance between privacy and security,” prosecutors wrote.
Apple has argued that the fight over the San Bernardino phone has broader implications for the security of encrypted information going forward, saying that helping in San Bernardino would create a troubling precedent. The company echoed that on Monday when discussing the New York case.
“Judge Orenstein ruled the FBI’s request would ‘thoroughly undermine fundamental principles of the Constitution’ and we agree,” Apple said in a statement after the appeal was filed. “We share the Judge’s concern that misuse of the All Writs Act would start us down a slippery slope that threatens everyone’s safety and privacy.”
Apple has said that since last fall, it has received federal requests to extract data in cases involving more than a dozen devices, some of them using older operating systems.
The fight over the locked iPhone in San Bernardino has seen Apple gain an incredible show of support from the tech industry, with firms like Facebook, Google, Amazon and Microsoft lining up to back the company in its efforts to resist the government. Law enforcement groups — and several relatives of San Bernardino victims — have sided with the FBI, arguing that Apple is impeding an ongoing investigation.