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Apple wins round in New York court over unlocking another iPhone

Last Updated Feb 29, 2016 11:21 PM EST

NEW YORK -- A New York judge says the U.S. Justice Department cannot force Apple to provide the FBI with access to locked iPhone data in a routine Brooklyn drug case.

U.S. Magistrate Judge James Orenstein ruled Monday in the case, which is similar in some ways -- but different in others -- to the dispute over unlocking an iPhone that belonged to one of the San Bernardino terrorists. In the San Bernardino case, a California magistrate judge has ordered Apple to create software to help the U.S. hack the gunman's locked iPhone. Apple is fighting that order.

The New York case involves an iPhone 5s belonging to a man named Jun Feng, who was charged with possession and distribution of methamphetamine. Feng's iPhone was seized under a search warrant, but Feng claimed he could not remember the password and investigators have been unable to unlock it. (Feng later pleaded guilty, but prosecutors say evidence on the phone might be relevant for his sentencing or a wider investigation of the drug ring.)

In October, Orenstein invited Apple to challenge the government's use of a 1789 law called the All Writs Act to compel Apple to help it recover iPhone data in criminal cases. Since then, lawyers say Apple has opposed the requests to help extract information from over a dozen iPhones in California, Illinois, Massachusetts and New York -- even though it had cooperated with such requests many times in the past.

The government said it was "disappointed" in Monday's ruling and vowed to appeal. "This phone may contain evidence that will assist us in an active criminal investigation and we will continue to use the judicial system in our attempt to obtain it," the Justice Department said in a statement.

Alex Abdo, staff attorney with the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, said in a statement that this is a victory for privacy, security and common sense.

"The government should not be able to run to court to get the surveillance power that Congress has deliberately kept from it. The future of digital privacy also hangs in the balance," the statement read. "If the government can force companies to weaken the security of their products, then we all lose."

Prosecutors argued in court filings that complying with the request "would not require Apple to make any changes to its software or hardware." Instead, "It would simply require Apple to use its existing capability to bypass the passcode on a passcode-locked iOS 7 phone, consistent with its previously stated public policy, and as it has routinely done so many times before."

By contrast, the iPhone 5c that belonged to San Bernardino gunman Sayed Farook was running a later version of Apple's iOS operating system with more built-in encryption. Unlocking that phone would require Apple to create new software to bypass a security measure that would erase the phone's data after 10 failed password attempts.

In both cases, the government has accused Apple of putting its corporate interests ahead of national security concerns.

"[Apple] invokes the prospect that offering assistance to the United States government in a federal criminal investigation, pursuant to an order from a United States federal court, would 'tarnish the Apple brand,'" prosecutors in the New York case wrote.

For its part, Apple says its priority is protecting its users' privacy, and that enabling access to locked phones would make all iPhone users more vulnerable to hackers or government surveillance.