A federal magistrate in Brooklyn on Monday sided with Apple...

A federal magistrate in Brooklyn on Monday sided with Apple in the first ruling on a high-stakes legal showdown over whether the government can force the company to help it break into iPhones. Credit: AP / Carolyn Kaster

A federal magistrate in Brooklyn on Monday sided with Apple in the first ruling on a high-stakes legal showdown over whether the government can force the company to help it break into iPhones that has spawned a similar battle in California over a phone linked to the San Bernardino terror attacks.

The ruling by U.S. Magistrate James Orenstein in a narcotics case is not binding in the California terrorism case, but his finding that the 227-year-old All Writs Act doesn’t give the government authority and Congress must act to set the balance between security and privacy could help shape the legal battle.

“That debate must happen today, and it must take place among legislators who are equipped to consider the technological and cultural realities of a world their predecessors could not begin to conceive,” Orenstein wrote in his 50-page opinion.

“It would betray our constitutional heritage and our people’s claim to democratic governance,” he added, “for a judge to pretend that our Founders already had that debate, and ended it, in 1789.”

The Brooklyn case arose last fall, focused on an iPhone 5s seized from Queens drug trafficker Jun Feng, who has since pleaded guilty. Apple and the government both urged Orenstein to rule despite the guilty plea after the same issue arose over San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook’s iPhone.

Prosecutors have traditionally used the All Writs Act to obtain assistance from third parties when needed to execute search warrants. It has made more than 80 requests of Apple, which had complied voluntarily in the past, but changed recently, it said, due to growing consumer concern about privacy.

The Justice Department said in a statement that it was “disappointed” and planned to appeal. Apple did not issue a statement, but a senior executive called it an “affirmation” of the company’s legal position that set an “important precedent” in the San Bernardino case.

The government says its ability to protect the public will be hampered if it can’t bypass security on smartphones. Apple says if it creates back doors for government, they will be exploited by hackers, and if it doesn’t make secure phones, foreign companies will.

In addition to citing the lack of Congressional action, Orenstein said in his opinion that it wasn’t clear that the government couldn’t use private experts to break into Feng’s iPhone model, but emphasized that he wasn’t resolving the underlying issue.

“I offer no opinion,” he wrote, “as to whether . . . the government’s legitimate interest in ensuring that no door is too strong to resist lawful entry should prevail against the equally legitimate societal interests arrayed against it here.”

The New York Civil Liberties union’s executive director, Donna Lieberman, in a statement Monday night praising the decision, said, “The court’s ruling is good news for privacy and the security of everyone’s information. The court correctly recognized that Congress has not given law enforcement the power that it was seeking to force Apple to assist its investigation.”

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