NEW YORK, Feb. 29 (UPI) -- A federal judge on Monday ruled the U.S. Department of Justice does not have legal authority to force Apple to develop a program to circumvent security features on a smartphone related to a drug trafficking case in New York.
U.S. Magistrate Judge James Orenstein issued the ruling in a New York court, saying the government's order places an "unreasonable burden" on the iPhone maker.
Monday's ruling is the latest step in a privacy case that has sharply divided the parties involved as well as American citizens for weeks. It could be a boon for Apple in its refusal to bend to an FBI order requiring the company to create a back door to access an iPhone belonging to suspects in a mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif.
FBI investigators have been trying to get into Syed Rizwan Farook's phone, believing there may be valuable data inside that would help shed light on the San Bernardino plot and possibly finger others involved. Rigorous security on the phone, though, has kept agents from discovering potential new clues.
Justice officials have tried to force Apple into creating a one-off software program that would allow investigators limitless attempts to crack the phone's password. As it stands now, agents have a very limited number of attempts to get in before the phone would sense a security threat and erase the entire device -- including any clues that may be contained within.
Apple has so far resisted a court order mandating the software, due to privacy concerns. Monday's court victory handed the tech company firmer legal footing in the fight.
"How best to balance those interests is a matter of critical importance to our society, and the need for an answer becomes more pressing daily, as the tide of technological advance flows ever farther past the boundaries of what seemed possible even a few decades ago," Orenstein wrote in the ruling. "But that debate must happen today, and it must take place among legislators who are equipped to consider the technological and cultural realities of a world their predecessors could not begin to conceive."
"It's directly on point," a senior Apple executive said of Monday's ruling. "This is the first time a court has looked specifically at the issue."
The government and Apple are already squaring off in a Southern California court over the issue and some believe the case will eventually go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Justice officials expressed disappointment in Monday's ruling, although they said they would appeal in district court to overrule the magistrate judge.
"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," a Justice Department spokesman said. "This phone may contain evidence that will assist us in an active criminal investigation and we will continue to use the judicial system in our attempt to obtain it."
Orenstein rebuffed the government's position Monday citing a previous bill that Congress considered and rejected, which would have allowed law enforcement agencies access to locked cellphone to mine data.
"The relief the government seeks is unavailable because Congress has considered legislation that would achieve the same result but has not adopted it," he wrote. "It is also clear that the government has made the considered decision that it is better off securing such crypto-legislative authority from the courts rather than taking the chance that open legislative debate might produce a result less to its liking."