17 February 2016
Law in Plain English: Understanding the FBI-Apple dispute in 250 words or less
Case: In the Matter of the Search of an Apple iPhone Seized During the Execution of a Search Warrant on a Black Lexis IS300, California License Plate 35KGD203, No. ED 15-0451M (February 16, 2016)
Summary: After Syed Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik shot and killed 14 people in San Bernardino,California, on December 2, 2015, the FBI sought and received a search warrant for a black Lexus. Pursuant to this search warrant, the FBI recovered an Apple iPhone 5C that was assigned to Farook but owned by his employer. The employer gave consent to the FBI to search the phone, but the FBI could not affect the search because it did not know the passcode and did not want to auto-erase the phone after 10 erroneous attempts. The FBI sought a court order under the All Writs Act, a 1789 law which permits courts to issue orders compelling third parties (like Apple) to assist law enforcement in enabling a search--in this case, of the cell phone. The Magistrate Judge signed the order, which compels Apple to cooperate by providing the FBI with a signed iPhone software file that can be loaded into the phone's RAM with the ability to (1) bypass or disable the auto-erase function; (2) enable the FBI to submit passcodes to the device electronically (either through a physical device port or wireless protocol); and (3) eliminate time delays between erroneous attempts. The order gives Apple five business days to contest it if it believes it to be unreasonably burdensome. Apple's letter to its customers signified its intent to do so.