In Search of Precedence: FBI Retreats from Apple Legal Battle

By Alex Marthews and Danielle Kerem

troyhorseLate Monday night, surveillance activists learned that the FBI was asking for a two-week postponement in the Apple v. FBI case — vacating a highly-anticipated hearing scheduled for the next day. According to the government, the FBI needed time to explore a newly discovered method for unlocking the iPhone given to San Bernardino killer Syed Rizwan Farook by his employer. Early signs suggest that this “new” technique will work, and the FBI seems likely to drop the case.

So, did we win?

The short answer is, sort of; but the dispute has “been deferred, not resolved” and this latest chapter has provided valuable insights into the trajectory of the encryption debate.

The FBI has been searching for a case that would enshrine into law their expansive and specious interpretation of the All Writs Act — an interpretation that would force companies to ensure the readability of data on devices sold to criminal suspects. The agency seemed confident that the San Bernardino attacks offered a suitable pretext and that the climate of mourning and fear that emerged in the wake of the shootings could be effectively exploited to advance these spurious legal claims — evidenced, in part, by the government’s solicitation of amicus briefs from relatives of the San Bernardino victims.

Events obviously didn’t unfold exactly how the FBI anticipated. Instead of recoiling in patriotic horror at Apple’s contumacious stance, other technology firms and cryptography experts largely went to bat for Apple. These critics voiced arguments that managed to persuade some members of Congress, like Senator Lindsay Graham. Crucially, even prominent surveillance backers publicly questioned the wisdom of the FBI’s legal battle with Apple.

In addition, this week’s developments strongly indicate that the FBI’s declarations — under oath — that an Apple-created software degrade was the only possible solution to the San Bernardino predicament may have amounted to perjury. ThScreen Shot 2016-03-25 at 4.14.04 PMis allegation is further buttressed by the FBI’s apparent reluctance to seriously consult with the NSA and other intelligence community officials as well as statements by several security experts — and NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden — casting doubt on the veracity of the FBI’s claims that Apple had the exclusive technical means of unlocking the phone

None of these developments are directly attributable to the awareness-raising efforts of activists, or to compelling commentary from public figures like John Oliver. However, the legal battle has provided civil liberties advocates with an opportunity to encourage the broader public to learn more about the privacy and security of their devices, and to make the case for greater skepticism of law enforcement claims. Yet, despite meaningful scrutiny of the FBI’s narrative in this case as well as the agency’s decision to temporarily withdraw from the Apple dispute, federal law enforcement has issued at least 12 similar, active All Writs Act orders involving iPhones and iPads running iOS 6 to iOS 9.

Moreover, in light of the greater than expected resistance to the FBI’s courtroom strategy, the agency may choose to gain traction by instead lobbying for Feinstein and Burr’s pro-backdoors bill in Congress. The lesson for the American public and our elected representatives is: Beware of the FBI’s claims, especially when those claims may be leveraged to set a troubling precedent with potentially wide-reaching, adverse consequences for consumer protection and the global privacy landscape.

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