Reuters reports: Last October, prosecutors from the Justice Department asked a federal magistrate judge in Brooklyn to issue an order directing Apple to help the Drug Enforcement Administration bust security on an iPhone 5 seized from the home of Jun Feng, a suspected meth dealer.
The government had previously obtained many such orders against Apple and other companies under the All Writs Act, a 1789 statute that grants federal courts broad power to issue “necessary or appropriate” writs.
The act has been a powerful tool for prosecutors since 1977, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in U.S. v. New York Telephone that the All Writs Act extends, under certain conditions, to private companies in a position to assist “the proper administration of justice.”
Apple has a long history of compliance with All Writs Act orders. The company helped New York investigators extract data from a suspected child sex abuser’s iPhone in 2008; rushed a data extraction in 2013 from the phone of an alleged child pornographer in Washington; and in 2015 provided federal agents in Florida with data the company extracted from a drug suspect’s phone.
According to a Justice Department brief filed last fall, Apple never objected to All Writs Act orders in those cases – nor, for that matter, to any All Writs Act order directing the company to help federal investigators break into iPhones.
Apple’s policy of acquiescence abruptly changed in the Jun Feng case last year. And for all of the attention now focused on Apple’s announced opposition to a newly issued All Writs Act order directing the company to help Justice Department investigators break the passcode on an iPhone belonging to San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook, the Feng case is quite likely to produce a ruling before the Farook case.
The impending showdown over Farook’s phone is an irresistibly stark depiction of the competing interests of individual privacy and national security. But keep your eye on precedent from Feng. [Continue reading…]