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Justice Department appeals New York ruling in iPhone case

Tami Abdollah Associated Press

WASHINGTON – Calling a New York judge’s ruling “an unprecedented limitation” on judicial authority, the Justice Department asked a Brooklyn federal court on Monday to reverse a decision that said Apple Inc. wasn’t required to pry open a locked iPhone.

The government’s 45-page brief comes a week after U.S. Magistrate Judge James Orenstein issued his decision in a routine drug case, dealing a blow to the Obama administration in its battle with the tech giant over privacy and public safety.

Government lawyers called their Monday request routine, arguing that the case is not about asking Apple to do anything new, or to create a “master key” to access all iPhones. Apple has opposed the government’s move in a separate case involving the shooter who killed 14 people Dec. 2 in San Bernardino, California.

Apple’s pushback has fueled a national debate over digital privacy rights and national security. Apple had previously assailed the government’s move, saying U.S. officials were seeking “dangerous power” through the courts and trampling on the company’s constitutional rights.

The Brooklyn case involves a government request that is less onerous for Apple and its phone technology. The so-called extraction technique works on an older iPhone operating system and has been used dozens of times before to assist investigators.

The California and New York cases both hinge on the government’s interpretation of the centuries-old All Writs Act. The new cases present another challenge for federal courts, which have to sort out how a law that is used to help government investigators squares with privacy and encryption in the digital age.

The government asserted in court papers Monday that Orenstein’s ruling in New York is “an unprecedented limitation on” judicial authority and that his legal “analysis goes far afield of the circumstances of this case.”

Federal prosecutors cited several examples in which Apple has extracted data from a locked device under the law, including a child exploitation case in New York, a narcotics case in Florida and another exploitation case in Washington state.

Apple responded Monday: “Judge Orenstein ruled the FBI’s request would ‘thoroughly undermine fundamental principles of the Constitution’ and we agree. 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.”

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