As Apple and the FBI square off over whether the feds should get access to the iPhone of a shooter who killed 14 people in the San Bernardino terror attack, Americans are uneasy about whether the tech company should be required to help the FBI unlock the phone and distrustful of how law enforcement would handle personal information on their devices.
Apple's refusal to unlock the phone has sparked a fierce debate over what should take priority – national security needs or the right to privacy. Just half of Americans believe that Apple should be required to unlock the phone, according to the Vrge Analytics survey (www.vrge.us) of 600 Americans conducted Feb.18-19.
However, that support dips to under half (46%) when asked the hypothetical question whether Apple should unlock their own smart phones at the FBI request. And Americans are clearly uneasy over whether the FBI can be trusted with the personal information they found.
According to the survey, only 41% of Americans said that they would "trust that the FBI would handle my personal information in a responsible manner and not use it to harm me." Among demographic groups, millennials and those living out west were most apt to be distrustful of the FBI acting responsibly with personal information – providing some clues perhaps into why the presidential campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have resonated with voters.
Trust, or distrust, clearly drives American's views. Among those who said they don't trust the FBI to handle their personal information responsibly, 65% don’t believe that Apple should be forced to unlock the shooter's iPhone, and 76% would want Apple to refuse to open up their own device if asked by the FBI.
"This standoff has put a spotlight on a 240-year-old principle of privacy that is being tested by technology, terrorism, and trust of our government," says Tom Galvin, partner at Vrge Strategies, which conducted the survey. "In a post-Edward Snowden breach era, tech companies do not want to be seen as being in bed with government, and the government is prioritizing national security over privacy concerns. The conflict is clear: citizens expect tech companies to keep their information private, but they also expect government to keep them safe," added Galvin. "This court battle pits those principles against each other.”
Despite numerous data breaches, digital tracking tools, and Americans sharing their lives on social media, citizens still have an expectation of privacy, according to the survey. Two-thirds of Americans (67%) said, "Of course we should still have an expectation of privacy, technology doesn't change that." That number jumps to over 80% for those who said they don't trust the FBI.
Other insights from the survey:
- Females are slightly more supportive of the FBI. Fifty-five percent said Apple should be required to unlock the phone and they were more trustful that the FBI would handle their own personal information responsibly.
- Millennials, those aged 18-29, are more distrustful of the government. Only 43% thought that Apple should be forced to unlock the iPhone. They were also twice as likely to report that if their phone were checked on that something embarrassing would be found on it.
- The higher an American's income, the more likely he or she is to support the FBI and call on Apple to unlock the iPhone. Fifty-five percent of those who have a household income above $100,000 said they would trust the FBI to handle their personal information in a responsible way.
- Where Americans live has a clear impact on their opinion. Those who live out west – including Silicon Valley, the home of many tech companies – are much more likely to distrust the FBI and side with Apple. Only 34 percent of those from the Pacific region said they would trust the FBI.
"We are heading into a time of enormous conflict spurred by how technology is reshaping our culture and laws," says Galvin. "Navigating that change, whether you are a Silicon Valley upstart or a government body struggling to make sense of it, will be the difference between success and failure for the next decade.”