The American population is largely split over whether Apple should comply with a court order to unlock an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters.
Two surveys found that roughly half of Americans believe Apple should help authorities bypass a security feature to get at the phone’s data.
But significant portions of those surveyed were also wary about the FBI forcing Apple to unlock their personal phones. They also showed high levels of distrust about the government's ability to responsibly handle their data.
The split likely reflects the complicated and novel nature of the standoff.
“We are heading into a time of enormous conflict spurred by how technology is reshaping our culture and laws,” said Tom Galvin, a partner at Vrge Strategies, which conducted one of the surveys.
SurveyMonkey was behind the second poll. Both firms conducted their studies on Thursday and Friday of last week.
Apple last week defied a court order requesting the company help the FBI access a government-owned iPhone 5c used by Syed Rizwan Farook for his job at the county health department.
The order asks Apple to create software that would disable a failsafe that triggers the phone to wipe its own memory if an incorrect password is inputted 10 times in a row.
Apple — backed up by tech industry groups and digital rights advocates — has insisted such software is tantamount to a “back door” that it considers “too dangerous to create.” The software, it says, would create a key that hackers could use to unlock all iPhones.
But the FBI has shot back, insisting the order is limited, and saying the phone could contain valuable information for the investigation into the San Bernardino, Calif., terrorist attacks that left 14 people dead.
“We don’t want to break anyone’s encryption or set a master key loose on the land,” FBI Director James Comey said in a statement late Sunday. “I hope thoughtful people will take the time to understand that.”
According to the surveys, the FBI has considerable support for its position.
Even among the iPhone owners in the SurveyMonkey poll, 49 percent of respondents said they side with the FBI.
However, this supports starts to erode when respondents were pressed to think about the FBI gaining access to their own smartphone. Only 46 percent of people would want the FBI to have the authority to pursue a court order to unlock a personal, according to the Vrge survey.
This may stem from a pervasive distrust of government law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Just 41 percent of respondents said they “trust that the FBI would handle my personal information in a responsible manner and not use it to harm me.”
At the same time, the SurveyMonkey poll showed that a slim majority of people want the government to do more to protect the country’s national security.
“The conflict is clear: Citizens expect tech companies to keep their information private, but they also expect government to keep them safe,” Galvin said. “This court battle pits those principles against each other.”