On February 16, 2016, Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym in the United States District Court for the Central District of California issued an order compelling Apple, Inc. to provide technical assistance to the F.B.I. so it can access an iPhone 5C that belonged to a shooter in the recent San Bernardino, California attack.
The order, which issued without obtaining Apple’s initial input, requires Apple to write new software and take other measures to disable passcode protection on the attacker’s iPhone. The court issued the order under 28 U.S.C. § 1651, the “All Writs Act,” which authorizes the United States federal courts to “issue all writs necessary or appropriate in aid of their respective jurisdictions and agreeable to the usages and principles of law.” The order also allowed Apple to make a request to the court for relief from compliance with the order if such compliance would be unreasonably burdensome. Apple made this request via a motion to vacate the order on February 25, 2016. In its motion to vacate the order, Apple raises three general arguments.
First, Apple argues that the relief the government seeks is not justified under an extension of the All Writs Act because law enforcement assistance by technology providers is already addressed by existing laws that specifically omit providers like Apple from their scope. Apple argues the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (“CALEA”), 47 U.S.C. § 1001 et seq., specifies when private companies must assist law enforcement in the decryption of electronic communications obtained during surveillance, and the nature of the assistance such companies must provide. Specifically, under CALEA a company has no obligation to assist law enforcement where the company does not retain a copy of the decryption key, which Apple says it does not have in this case. Thus, Apple asserts that Congress opted not to provide courts with the authority to compel companies like Apple to assist law enforcement in cases such as this one where Apple designed and manufactured the device but did not retain a decryption key. Therefore, Apple says the government’s attempt to use the All Writs Act to expand the obligations imposed by CALEA is improper and violates the separation of powers doctrine.