Maybe it's just the people who follow me on social media. But a recent finding by the Pew Research Center that half of Americans support the FBI over Apple in an ongoing duel over iPhone security produced a very lopsided response in my Twitter feed. And it looked nothing like the actual poll results.
— NOO-JIN Pham (@nugepham) February 23, 2016
This is not a major surprise, but it's an opportunity to unpack a crucial dynamic behind the Apple-FBI dispute.
As I said, the discrepancy between Pew's results and the opposite reaction on social media could simply be a result of the kinds of people who follow tech writers on Twitter, a social network whose audience is pretty tech-friendly to begin with. But that isn't an argument for dismissing that reaction. In fact, I want to argue that there's something else at play here, and nothing sums it up better than this tweet:
What we're witnessing here is a peculiar artifact of technology polling that you don't get on social issues like abortion or religion, where convictions tend to remain rooted in ideology. Opinions about technology turn out to be very malleable, and in more ways than just how a survey question is phrased or how big the sample is. But how do we evaluate that?
As an example, let's look at the way the public responded to Edward Snowden's leaks about the National Security Agency. Days after the news broke, nearly 60 percent of Americans said they supported the NSA's surveillance programs. This was at a time when most people were still trying to understand what these programs were about and how extensive they were — or if they were even real. But as the nation learned more, discovering how spies were collecting everything from call records to cellphone geolocation data, the tide of opinion slowly began shifting against the intelligence community. By November 2013, five months after Snowden's disclosures, 46 percent of Americans said the NSA had gone too far in its surveillance activities. Two months after that, the country hit a milestone when a Pew Research Center/USA Today survey discovered that the share of Americans disapproving of the NSA's surveillance programs had risen to 53 percent. Although the questions in each poll were slightly different, together they nonetheless paint the picture of a gradually awakening population. The moment we're in right now is a bit like the moment we were in during the initial days of the Snowden reports. Many Americans, journalists included, are still learning new details about the Apple-FBI fight. For instance, on Tuesday Michael Scarcella, editor of the National Law Journal, reported that there are as many as 12 other federal court cases involving data on iPhones running older versions of iOS.
These documents lend support to Apple's claim that its high-profile showdown with the FBI is indeed about more than just one iPhone.
Although Pew's latest survey shows that three out of four Americans have "heard" about the fight involving Apple and the FBI, it's less clear just what they've heard about that dispute. And were they to learn more, Apple's defenders say, it's likely that they would take a different view.
The government says its efforts are not aimed at defeating encryption broadly but are narrowly targeted to the iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters.
“We simply want the chance, with a search warrant, to try to guess the terrorist’s passcode without the phone essentially self-destructing, and without it taking a decade to guess correctly,” FBI chief James Comey said in a message to the public. “We don’t want to break anyone’s encryption.”
But many technologists oppose letting the government break open even a single iPhone — because it really means giving the FBI the tools to crack open every iPhone on the planet, they say. As a tech entrepreneur, Ryan Orbuch, told the Guardian:
“When you do InfoSec and your job is security, your moral view of the world is based on the fact that you can provide security through math, security that’s complete and secure not just because of any social contract but because literally the math works,” Orbuch said. “When someone comes and says I want you to break this for me, it goes against everything we believe in.”
What's more, Apple's advocates say, giving law enforcement a way to break into a secure phone means creating vulnerabilities that hackers and other nations' spies can also exploit. And it is ultimately self-defeating because it will simply encourage terrorists and criminals to communicate through other means that are even harder to detect, according to some pro-encryption lawmakers.
"I don’t think the American people are going to react very well to that kind of policy when people really break this down in the way I’ve described," Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a vocal privacy advocate, told the Daily Dot.
Law-abiding citizens may think they have nothing to hide and would never expect to find themselves on the business end of a law enforcement operation. But privacy groups have long argued that with more and more of our personal data winding up in the hands of corporations (if not the public), it has become increasingly easy for others to make even innocent people appear suspicious. A classic example can be found in swatting — a practice where digital pranksters dig up your personal information and then use it to call a SWAT team to your house, under the false pretense that you are about to commit a violent crime. This is a costly and dangerous form of harassment, and it can happen to even the most experienced security researchers.
Greater familiarity with technology, and what it can and can't be used for, can lend a different perspective on a range of issues. On this one in particular, even basic exposure to smartphones can be enough to sway some Americans into viewing the FBI's position more skeptically. By a 41-33 margin, smartphone owners were far more likely to support Apple's position than non-smartphone owners in the Pew study this week.
It took seven months for public opinion to shift on the NSA. Apple may be hoping for a similar outcome on this issue, but the pace at which this saga is playing out suggests the company may not have that kind of time.