Federal judge rules US government can't force Apple to make a security-breaking tool

We've all heard that there's a federal judge in California who ordered Apple to make a tool to help the FBI decrypt a phone belonging to one of the San Bernardino shooters -- but despite the FBI's insistence that this is a special circumstance, San Bernardino is just one of a dozen-odd cases where the FBI is making similar demands on Apple.

The judge in one of those cases just clobbered the FBI and the DoJ's interpretation of the 18th-century "All Writs Act," which says that judges can order people to do specific things to help law enforcement officers.

New York Eastern District magistrate judge James Orenstein is presiding in a drug case where the US government is hoping to compel Apple to make a "bypass device" to let it unlock a suspect's phone. Judge Orenstein has emphatically rejected the government's request, slamming their interpretation of the the All Writs Act in the process:

The government's position also produces a wholly different kind of absurdity: the idea that the First Congress might so thoroughly undermine fundamental principles of the Constitution that many of its members had personally just helped to write or to ratify. Its preferred reading of the law – which allows a court to confer on the executive branch any investigative authority Congress has decided to withhold, so long as it has not affirmatively outlawed it – would transform the [All Writs Act] from a limited gap-filing statute that ensures the smooth functioning of the judiciary itself into a mechanism for upending the separation of powers by delegating to the judiciary a legislative power bounded only by Congress's superior ability to prohibit or preempt. I conclude that the constitutionality of such an interpretation is so doubtful as to render it impermissible as a matter of statutory construction. [Emphasis added.]

The order comes just three days before briefs are due to the judge in San Bernardino, whose initial order under All Writs flies in the face of Orenstein's reasoning.

To understand some of the constitutional questions raised by this issue, you need to understand that multiple courts have ruled that software code is a form of expressive speech, protected by the First Amendment. Previous code-as-speech cases dealt with censorship: attempts by the government to suppress the publication of code (for example, code that could be used to encrypt data beyond the reach of the NSA).

But these cases raise even stronger free speech issues than those raised by compelled silence: compelled speech and compelled false speech. The FBI wants Apple to produce code to its specifications -- that is, they want to force Apple to utter specific speech. Worse, they want Apple to add a cryptographic signature to the code, a signature that says, "This code is safe and is designed to make your phone as robust as possible." The government struggles to keep censorship orders within the bounds of the constitution, but compelled speech and compelled lies are going to be a serious stretch.

EFF Executive Director Cindy Cohn, who argued the first successful code-as-speech case, explains more:

The EFF is preparing an amicus brief backing Apple's arguments, including the First Amendment claim. Cohn revealed that an army of technologists instrumental in developing early cryptographic standards would sign the brief, including Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman, creators of the Diffie–Hellman key exchange, one of the earliest encryption protocols.

“We're talking about the value that signatures have, and how they're really a lot like physical signatures,” Cohn said. “You have to sign the papers to sell your house, and the reason you have to sign the papers to sell your house is that so nobody else can come in and sell your house out from underneath you. It represents your word and your bond.”

In fact, Cohn said, there was a strong case to be made that digital signatures were even “more powerful” than written ones, “because a digital signature actually confirms the authenticity of the thing that's being signed in a way that a physical signature really can't.”

“I think there would be a constitutional problem even if the government was just asking Apple to write code that Apple didn't want to write,” Cohn said. “But the fact that it's actually asking Apple to then put its trust marker on that, to me, makes it, again, even more clear that there are First Amendment implications for what's going on here.”

'Code is speech' expert Cindy Cohn explains key argument in Apple's fight with the FBI [Eric Geller/Daily Dot]

Government Can't Force Apple to Bypass iPhone Lock Screen, New York Judge Rules [Andrew Crocker and Parker Higgins/EFF]


(Image: Cracked iPhone, Andrew Mager, CC-BY-SA)