The FBI cannot force Apple to allow access to a locked iPhone following a ruling from a New York judge, setting a precedent for other legal challenges including the ongoing fight about gaining access to the phone of one of the San Bernardino shooters.
A Los Angeles Court ruled earlier this year that Apple has to help FBI investigators gain access an iPhone 5C owned by Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the perpetrators of the attack on 80 employees at a training event for the Department of Public Health in San Bernardino, California in December.
The FBI wants Apple to make a new version of its iPhone operating system in order to circumvent its security features and gain access to the data within.
However, in an unrelated drug case in Brooklyn, New York City, the FBI has been denied a similar request with the judge saying that the US justice department cannot use a 227-year-old law to force Apple to provide the FBI with access to locked iPhone data.
Although the ruling by Judge James Orenstein only applied narrowly to one drug case, it has dealt a blow to the government in its battle with Apple over privacy and public safety.
Orenstein belittled some government arguments, saying lawyers were stretching an old law ‘to produce impermissibly absurd results’.
The result supports Apple’s ongoing legal fight against the California judge's order to aid the FBI in unlocking the shooter’s device.
Orenstein rejected the FBI’s claims that Apple was only concerned with public relations, and said he found no limit on how far the government would go to require a person or company to violate the most deeply-rooted values.
Apple's opposition to the government's tactics has evoked a national debate over digital privacy rights and national security.
Facebook, Twitter and Google have all lent their support saying that complying with the order would set a dangerous precedent for privacy and could compromise the security of all iPhones.
Tech industry executives have also said that the fight will likely convince companies in the sector to bolster their efforts to engineer safeguards against government intrusion.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, UK government sources have said that a revised version of the Investigatory Powers Bill will not oblige technology firms to weaken security by undermining encryption systems.
The Bill introduces a number of measures that gives intelligence services and the police greater access to the personal digital information of anyone suspected of criminal activities and forces communication companies to allow the government to spy on the smartphones of criminal suspects.The revisions will state that companies can only be asked to remove encryption that they themselves have applied, and only where it is ‘practicable’ for them to do so.
The government has always said no additional requirements will be imposed in relation to encryption over and above the existing obligations and the new Bill is expected to spell out the current position more explicitly.
The clarification on encryption comes as ministers are poised to unveil a string of amendments to the legislation after the findings of three parliamentary inquiries on the first draft sparked calls for Home Secretary Theresa May to return to the drawing board.
Officials have said the new Bill is clearer, with tighter technical definitions and strict codes of practice; includes stronger privacy safeguards including a requirement for security services, as well as the police, to obtain a senior judge's permission before accessing communications data to identify a journalist's source; and explicitly prevents UK agencies from asking foreign intelligence bodies to undertake activity on their behalf unless they have a warrant approved by a secretary of state and judicial commissioner.
"We have strengthened safeguards, enhanced privacy protections and bolstered oversight arrangements,” said a source.
"This is world-leading legislation, setting out in unprecedented detail the powers available to the police and security services to gather and access communications and communications data, subject to a robust regulatory regime.
"Terrorists and criminals are operating online and we need to ensure the police and security services can keep pace with the modern world and continue to protect the British public from the many serious threats we face."