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FBI v. Apple timeline: Tracking legal battles over iPhone security

Though the Department of Justice has concluded the cases over locked iPhones in San Bernardino and Brooklyn, those cases could prove instrumental in future fights with Apple involving smartphone security. Here are the significant dates, legal filings, and arguments in both cases.

This story has been updated to reflect the latest developments in both cases.

Last week, the FBI closed the books on another chapter in its battle with Apple over smartphone encryption.

In a letter sent late Friday, the Department of Justice called on a Brooklyn judge to drop a court order demanding Apple unlock an iPhone belonging to a suspected drug dealer, after investigators reportedly obtained the password to that device.

That follows the FBI’s claim in March that third-party hackers unlocked an iPhone recovered after the San Bernardino, Calif., terrorist attack.

Despite the outcome of both cases, the arguments and filings along the way have contributed to a much bigger battle between US government officials and the tech sector over encryption on consumer devices.

On one hand, the US government insists its requests are just about these specific phones – one in a terror investigation and another in a drug case. But Apple argues that’s not possible: Writing code to bypass strong security features in his products, CEO Tim Cook says, would amount to a government backdoor that could unlock all sorts of devices and compromise the security of millions of consumers.

American tech companies, privacy advocates, and even other countries are watching the legal battles closely. These are shaping up to be the first major test cases in the ongoing debate over strong encryption for consumer products.

And the legal dispute is likely to be a long one. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, there are 63 cases where the US government used the All Writs Act, a 1789 law, to get Apple or Google to provide information from a locked mobile device. Passcode put together a guide to the Brooklyn and San Bernardino cases – which could prove instrumental in the ongoing legal back-and-forth over smartphone security. 

April 22, 2016

In a letter to a US judge in Brooklyn, the Justice Department says that investigators had successfully obtained the password to an iPhone belonging to a suspected drug dealer and would withdraw requests for a court order.

March 28, 2016

Saying that a third-party method to gain access to the San Bernardino, Calif. iPhone has worked, the Justice Department asks US magistrate judge Sheri Pym to vacate a court order calling on Apple to develop software that would ease password controls on the device.

March 24, 2016

Apple requested that the Brooklyn district judge allow the company to wait to file its response to the Department of Justice until after the government files its April 5 report for the San Bernardino, Calif., case. Whether or not the technique worked, Apple argued, this case would be affected.

March 23, 2016

Responding to a Wall Street Journal editorial accusing the government of being reckless in the San Bernardino, Calif., case, FBI director James Comey pennd a brief op-ed arguing that the government did exhaust its options for getting into the California iPhone before bringing the issue to court. The case, he said, is "not about trying to send a message or set a precedent," but to investigate a case of terrorism.

March 21, 2016

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University discovered a security flaw in Apple’s encrypted iMessage platform that allowed them to decrypt photos and videos. This, the researchers said, indicates that Apple’s encryption is not as bulletproof as law enforcement says it is.

Separately, the FBI said a third-party can potentially help the FBI gain access to the San Bernardino, Calif., iPhone, and the California court granted the bureau its requests that the March 22 court date be postponed.

March 12, 2016

President Obama, during his visit to South by Southwest Interactive in Austin, said law enforcement must have a way to access encrypted information related to terrorism and child pornography cases. While Mr. Obama did not specifically mention the Apple case, his comments indicate he does not support the position many tech companies are taking on this issue. “If your argument is strong encryption, no matter what ... It’s fetishizing our phones above every other value,” he said, “and that can’t be the right answer.”

March 10, 2016

The government files a response to Apple’s request for California Judge Pym to abandon her order for the company to help the FBI. The government reiterates its argument that such measures would only be used in this one case, and that the order compelling Apple to comply is “modest.”

March 7, 2016

The Brooklyn district attorney’s office appeals Orenstein’s decision not to compel Apple to help the New York district attorney get into the seized iPhone.

March 1-3, 2016

Thirty-seven tech companies and a host of privacy leaders, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Twitter, AT&T, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, file amicus briefs in support of Apple.

Feb. 29, 2016

Orenstein formally denies the government’s request to require Apple to help the Brooklyn district attorney’s office access information on a seized iPhone. The New York judge said that the circumstances did not sufficiently meet the threshold for invoking the All Writs Act, as the assistance would be “extraordinary.”

Feb. 25, 2016

Apple formally objects to the California magistrate court’s order and asks the court to withdraw the order. Apple argues that the government’s requested measures violate Apple’s First Amendment rights by compelling speech – forcing the company to write new code to create intellectual property it does not believe in.

Feb. 24, 2016

Privacy advocates organize rallies in nearly 40 cities across the country in support of Apple. The protests draw modest crowds. A Feb. 22 public poll by Pew Research Center indicated that the American public was largely divided on the issue, with 51 percent siding with the government.

Feb. 23, 2016

Apple’s CEO Tim Cook said he would take the San Bernardino, Calif., case all the way the Supreme Court, bringing to Apple’s team several heavy hitter lawyers, such as Theodore Boutrous and former US solicitor general Theodore Olson, who have experience arguing before the high court.

Feb. 19, 2016

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. said encryption is preventing his investigators from accessing 175 Apple devices – comments some say indicate the government may issue more requests to unlock phones, pending the outcome of these cases.

Feb. 19, 2016

The Justice Department asks the California magistrate judge to force Apple to comply with the court’s order to help the FBI gain access to Syed Rizwan Farook’s phone, saying Apple is refusing to do so as part of a “marketing strategy.”

Apple argued on a call with reporters that the government’s own mishandling of the phone – specifically, San Bernardino County changing the phone’s Apple ID – likely ruined the government’s chances of getting the phone’s data without forcing the company to write new software.

Feb. 17-19, 2016

US presidential candidates weighed in on whether Apple should help the FBI gain access to Syed Rizwan Farook’s seized phone. Most Republicans expressed at least some support for the court’s decision. In a poll, Passcode’s pool of security experts said Apple should not assist the bureau in this way.

Feb. 17, 2016

In a letter to New York magistrate judge James Orenstein, Apple announces that it has received multiple other, similar requests to gain access to its devices seized by law enforcement under the All Writs Act. This, Apple said, seems contrary to the government’s argument that the security modifications to the San Bernardino, Calif., phone would be a single-use request.

Feb. 16, 2016

In a public letter to customers, Apple CEO Tim Cook said Apple would not comply with the order, insisting the request amounted to building a backdoor into his products that is simply "too dangerous to create." Such a tool could be used to get around the default strong encryption and security measures on all sorts of Apple devices other than the San Bernardino phone, Mr. Cook says, which could compromise the security of millions of consumers.

Feb. 16, 2016

The Justice Department seeks to compel Apple to help the FBI bypass security features to gain access to the data on San Bernardino, Calif., shooter Syed Rizwan Farook’s seized iPhone.

Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym in California orders Apple to install such software on the phone – this would make it easier for federal agents to access the phone’s data by "brute force," guessing the passcode by using programs designed to try millions of combinations quickly.

Dec. 2, 2015

Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik kill 14 and injure 22 people at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, Calif. Officials believe the attack was inspired by the Islamic State terror group, and call it the most serious terror attack on US soil since Sept. 11, 2001.  

Oct. 22, 2015

The Brooklyn district attorney responds, saying that Apple has assisted the US government in past cases with All Writs Act orders – a seldom-used act that wouldn’t apply if the action puts a significant burden on the third party. The DA asserts it is technically feasible for the company to unlock the iPhone.

Oct. 19, 2015

Apple responds to Judge Orenstein’s decision not to compel the company to help the New York district attorney get into the seized iPhone. Apple said that the Brooklyn district attorney’s request was “substantially burdensome” because it was technically impossible, would damage consumers’ trust in the security of Apple products, and “substantially tarnish the Apple brand.”

Oct. 9, 2015

Magistrate judge James Orenstein from New York’s eastern district court said the government’s reasoning was not sufficient to compel Apple under the All Writs Act – a 1789 law that allows courts to request the assistance of a third party in a case – to help investigators access information on the seized iPhone in Brooklyn. But he did not issue a ruling.

Oct. 8, 2015

After seizing an iPhone from a suspected drug dealer, the Brooklyn US Attorney’s office sought to compel Apple to help investigators get past the phone’s encryption. Investigators said the strong security was blocking them from accessing potentially critical data on the phone.

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