The FBI and Apple are in a heated public relations battle over a court order that compels the company to create a tool to help the government unlock a smartphone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters. But it's hard to tell which side is winning Americans' hearts and minds in the court of public opinion.
One recent Pew Research Poll found that just over 50 percent of Americans sided with the FBI, and only 38 percent supported Apple's position. Now another poll released Wednesday by Reuters and market research firm Ipsos found stronger support for Apple, with 46 percent on their side, versus 35 percent for the FBI's position.
But if you dig into the details of the surveys, it's clear that Americans' position on the dispute really comes down to how you ask about it.
The Pew poll tried to give equal weight to the argument on both sides. It told respondents that "the FBI has said that accessing the iPhone is an important part of their ongoing investigation into the San Bernardino attacks" and "Apple has said that unlocking the iPhone could compromise the security of other users’ information."
The Reuters/Ipsos poll, on the other hand, spent much longer laying out Apple's case. Here's what it asked:
Apple is opposing a court order to unlock a smart phone that was used by one of the shooters in the San Bernardino attack. Apple is concerned that if it helps the FBI this time, it will be forced to help the government in future cases that may not be linked to national security, opening the door for hackers and potential future data breaches for smartphone users. Do you agree or disagree with Apple’s decision to oppose the court order?
Both are "legitimate ways" to ask about the issue, according to Ronald Langley, the director of the University of Kentucky's Survey Research Center. But how a question is asked can influence the way that people respond, and in this case the differing results could "very well just be how the question was worded," he said.
There also may have been a small "priming effect" in the Reuters/Ipsos polls, Langley said. That's because the Apple query was preceded by a series of questions asking if respondents would be "willing to give up privacy" in certain situations that drew largely negative responses.
"It just shows that small subtle (and perhaps perfectly legitimate) question wording differences can lead to widely different results, especially when viewed in the context of the preceding questions or topic of the poll," Langley said.
But, of course, there's also the question of if public opinion should be the real deciding factor in the legal question Apple and the FBI are duking it out over: Many technologists have rushed to Apple's defense -- and argued that the reason the rest of America hasn't because they don't yet fully understand the scope of what's at stake.
And history suggests that Americans are open to changing their minds as they learn more about high tech public policy debates. In the immediate wake of Edward Snowden's revelations about National Security Agency spying, polls showed a majority of Americans supported the intelligence agency. But over the next seven months, as more details emerged and privacy advocates made their case, public opinion swung the other way.