Most Americans support the FBI over Apple, Pew study finds

The finding reflects a tendency in the US to prioritize national security over civil liberties

Most Americans think that Apple should help the FBI unlock a smartphone used by one of the terrorists in the San Bernardino mass shooting, according to a study released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center.

Fifty-one percent of those asked said they think Apple should unlock the iPhone to help the FBI with its investigation, while 38 percent said it should not unlock the phone to protect the security of its other users. Eleven percent of respondents had no opinion either way.

Pew Apple graphic Pew

Pew found that a majority of Americans think Apple should help the FBI unlock the iPhone

Depending on how you look at it, that could suggest only a small majority side with the FBI (51 percent versus 49 percent who oppose it or are undecided), or it could suggest a clear majority in the FBI's favor (51 percent to 38 percent).

Pew tends to favor the 51 percent to 38 percent comparison, said Alec Tyson, a senior researcher at Pew. "It's a fairly complex issue, and replying 'I don't know' is a perfectly legitimate response," he said. Of those who do have an opinion, most clearly side with the FBI.

The survey quizzed 1,002 adults by telephone between Feb. 18 and Feb. 21, half via cell phone and half on a landline.

Early last week, a magistrate judge ordered Apple to modify its iOS software so that the FBI can bypass security protections on the phone's lock screen to access the data inside. Investigators say the phone could possibly hold clues to finding more terrorists.

Apple is fighting back and will appeal the order. Modifying the software would weaken security for all users, it said, putting them at risk of data theft and other crimes.

The FBI insists the modification would apply only to the iPhone used in San Bernardino, but Apple says the order could open the door to more invasive requests in future.

"Should the government be allowed to order us to create other capabilities for surveillance purposes, such as recording conversations or location tracking? This would set a very dangerous precedent," CEO Tim Cook wrote in a Q&A on Apple's website.

The stand-off has been making headline news, and the Pew survey found that 75 percent of those asked had heard either a lot (39 percent) or a little (36 percent) about the issue.

That's a high level of awareness compared to other studies, Tyson said, suggesting people are paying attention.

If the public is leaning in the FBI's favor, it shouldn't be a surprise, he said. "In general over recent years when it comes to anti-terrorism efforts, we find the public tends to prioritize keeping the country safe over concerns about civil liberties."

That wasn't so clearly the case following the 2013 Edward Snowden revelations about National Security Agency surveillance, but the pendulum has swung the other way since the rise of ISIS, Tyson said.

To illustrate, he pointed to another Pew study conducted in December. "Public concerns that anti-terrorism policies have gone too far in restricting civil liberties have fallen to their lowest level in five years (28 percent)," Pew said then. "Twice as many (56 percent) now say their greater concern is that these policies have not gone far enough to adequately protect the country."

Given that reality, a showing of 38 percent in support of Apple might not be a bad result for the company, especially given that there are nuances to the argument Apple is trying to make.

Another factor is that while many people favor security in the abstract, they might be less willing to see their own personal data put at risk, Tyson said. According to the latest study, among those who personally own an iPhone, the views were more evenly divided, with 47 percent saying Apple should help unlock the phone, and 43 percent saying it should not.

Whatever the public's view, it shouldn't influence the outcome of Apple's legal case. "The courts should not be swayed at all," said Susan Hennessey, managing editor of Lawfare and a former attorney in the Office of General Counsel at the NSA.

But it could influence future legislation in this area.

"Certainly public opinion is enormously important for future legislative efforts," she said.

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