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Those worried about the U.S. government finding ways to disable encryption in consumer technologies have a lot more explaining to do.  The American public isn’t buying their point of view. By a wide margin, Americans side with the FBI over Apple in the recent, very public spat over unlocking an iPhone used by one of the San Bernadino shooters.

Credit: Pew Research
Graphic: Pew Research Center.

The Pew Research Center conducted a national survey over the weekend and found that 51% sided with the FBI, vs 38% who side with Apple. Another 11% answered, “don’t know.”

Some bullet points from Pew:

  • The survey, conducted February 18-21 among 1,002 adults, finds that news about a federal court ordering Apple to unlock the suspect’s iPhone has registered widely with the public: 75% say they have heard either a lot (39%) or a little (36%) about the situation.
  • The survey also finds that almost identical shares of Republicans (56%) and Democrats (55%) say that Apple should unlock the San Bernardino suspect’s iPhone to aid the FBI’s ongoing investigation. By contrast, independents are divided: 45% say Apple should unlock the iPhone, while about as many (42%) say they should not unlock the phone to ensure the security of their other users’ information.  However, independents who lean toward the Republican and Democratic parties – unlike those who identify as partisans – hold very different views. By a 58%-32% margin, independents who lean Republican say that Apple should unlock the iPhone. By contrast, 55% of Democratic leaners say Apple should not unlock the iPhone, while 34% say that they should.
  • Smartphone owners are more likely than those who do not own a smartphone to say Apple should not unlock the San Bernardino iPhone. Half of those who own a smartphone (50%) say Apple should unlock the iPhone, compared with 41% who say they should not unlock the phone. Among those who do not own a smartphone, 52% say Apple should unlock the San Bernardino iPhone, compared with just 33% who say Apple should not do this.
  • There were sharp age distinctions.  Those under 30 were split 50-50.  But by a 54%-27% margin, those 65 and older think Apple should unlock the phone; 18% do not offer a view.

While you digest this, let me offer a word of caution about surveys involving privacy. Several years ago, another Pew study found that a majority of Americans said it was OK for the government to violate someone else’s privacy in the interests of national security; but when asked if it was ok for the government to violate their own privacy in the interest of national security, the results were reversed. Of course. So one wonders what the response would be to a question like, “Should the FBI be allowed to unlock your encrypted files while researching the San Bernadino shootings?” or some other terrorist act in the past.

As always, the way the questions are asked impacts the polling dramatically. If the question were, “Is it OK for the government to force Apple to spend weeks or months creating a new piece of software for the FBI?” vs. “Do you think Apple should (should not) unlock the iPhone?” would the results be different?

Or if the question were, “Should encryption products not be made available to American consumers?” what would the answer be?

We should keep having the conversation.

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