For all the fighting between Apple and the FBI over a terrorist shooter in San Bernardino, California, it may be the case of an accused drug dealer in Queens, New York, that helps resolve the escalating battle between personal privacy and national security.
A judge for the US District Court in New York on Monday ruled that the US had no right to use a 227-year-old law called the All Writs Act to compel Apple to unlock a specific device and denied its motion. The government's demand, which was filed in October, is separate from Apple's high-profile fight with the FBI over the contents of the iPhone 5C used by one of the terrorists involved in the December shooting in San Bernardino.
But while this may be a different case, the ruling may set a precedent strengthening Apple's argument that it doesn't have to cooperate with a February 16 court order to hack into the terrorist's iPhone. Apple argues that the FBI's demand for a new version of its iPhone mobile operating software will create a "back door" into every iPhone and leave customers vulnerable to hackers.
Government authorities argue that access to the information is critical to ensuring our national security and preventing attacks like the San Bernardino shooting, which left 14 people dead and 20 wounded.
A senior Apple executive, speaking on a conference call with reporters on Monday, said the decision may set a precedent that sways the judge in the San Bernardino case. The ruling in New York by Magistrate James Orenstein bolsters its argument that using the All Writs Act to compel the company to write a version of its iOS software that doesn't exist today is unconstitutional, Apple said.
The Department of Justice said it was "disappointed" by today's ruling in New York and said it will continue to use the judicial system to get access to the iPhone.
"As our prior court filings make clear, Apple expressly agreed to assist the government in accessing the data on this iPhone -- as it had many times before in similar circumstances -- and only changed course when the government's application for assistance was made public by the court. This phone may contain evidence that will assist us in an active criminal investigation."
The ruling comes a day before Apple's general counsel, Bruce Sewell, is scheduled to appear before the House Judiciary Committee. Here's a draft of his opening statement.
The New York case deals with an accused drug trafficker and the government's ability to use the All Writs Act to force Apple to help hack into the device. Judge Orenstein, however, decided the law couldn't be used in that way.
"Ultimately, the question to be answered in this matter, and in others like it across the country, is not whether the government should be able to force Apple to help it unlock a specific device," he wrote in his 50-page ruling today. "It is instead whether the All Writs Act resolves that issue and many others like it yet to come...I conclude that it does not."
Last week, Apple filed a 65-page response to the court that contends the court order violates the company's constitutional rights. A hearing to discuss the standoff between Apple and the FBI is set for March 22 in federal court in Riverside, California.
The American public is deeply divided on the matter. The Pew Research Center found that 51 percent of those surveyed believe Apple should comply with the court order, while 38 percent said the company shouldn't unlock the iPhone. A later Reuters poll found 46 percent of respondents agreed with Apple's position and 35 percent disagreed.
CNET's Terry Collins contributed to this report.