The Justice Department Monday asked a federal judge to force Apple to help investigators open the iPhone of a suspected Brooklyn drug dealer.
Prosecutors are seeking to overturn last week's ruling from a federal magistrate denying the government's request. Monday's step is, in essence, the first step in an appeal.
"In light of the debate that has recently come to surround this issue, it is worth briefly noting what this case is not about. Apple is not being asked to do anything it does not currently have the capability to do," the Justice Department's court filing said.
The Brooklyn case involves an older model device, an iPhone 5s, running an older version of the operating system, iOS 7. For that reason, prosecutors said, Apple is not required to write new software to allow investigators to unlock the phone.
This is a substantial difference from the controversy over the iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino attackers, which was running iOS 8. In order to allow FBI agents to try thousands of combinations of passcodes to open that device, Apple would have to install new software to disable the security functions on the phone.
The company has argued that such a step would create a "master key," jeopardizing the security of millions of iPhones worldwide.
In the Brooklyn case, by contrast, no such new software would be required.
"Apple may perform the passcode-bypass in its own lab, using its own technicians, just as it always has, without revealing to the government how it did so. Therefore, granting the application will not affect the technological security of any Apple iPhone nor hand the government a 'master key,'" the government's brief said.
Apple's lawyers said last month that they have consistently agreed to extract data from older locked phones when served with a lawful court order. But the company stopped doing so after the magistrate judge in Brooklyn last October questioned the court procedure used by the Justice Department.
In a statement Monday evening, Apple said: "[The judge in the case] ruled the FBI’s request would 'thoroughly undermine fundamental principles of the Constitution’ and we agree. We share the Judge’s concern that misuse of the All Writs Act would start us down a slippery slope that threatens everyone’s safety and privacy."