A US Magistrate Judge in California ruled recently that technology giant Apple could be required to create specialized software to help federal investigators bypass the security protocols on the encrypted Iphone 5S used by Syed Farook, one of the San Bernardino shooters. This ruling conflicts with the ruling of a US Magistrate Judge in Brooklyn, who found that he could not order Apple to take steps to bypass the security features of an Iphone seized during an earlier drug investigation.
The media coverage of the more recent San Bernardino case has been far more extensive because it involves the December 2, 2015 mass-shooting committed by a married couple who were radicalized by ISIS. The facts and events giving rise to the older Brooklyn case are far more ordinary. But for the Iphone issue, that matter arises from just another relatively routine federal narcotics investigation – one of who-knows-how-many that play out in federal courts across the country every single day.
But a review of the ordinary drug case reveals far more about the development of the cell phone security issue that is at the heart of this debate. The drug case involves an alleged methamphetamine dealer named Jun Feng, who’s phone was seized during the 2014 search of his Queens, New York residence. Investigators sought to access his phone to obtain information that is fairly routine in drug cases, such as contact lists. According to prosecutors in that case, Apple had assisted federal agents in extracting information from Iphones tied to criminal investigations approximately 70 times in seven years. To law enforcement’s surprise, Apple suddenly changed its position as to such issues in Feng’s case. Feng entered a guilty plea last October, but attorneys for both Apple and the Government continued to press the Court for a ruling and the Court ruled against the Government. Continue reading