This is What the Public Really Thinks About FBI vs. Apple


DOJ v. Data Encryption – Public Perception and Communications Lessons

The heated dispute between Apple and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) over the iPhone used by Syed Rizwan Farook before the San Bernardino, California, mass shooting has captured attention across America and the world. While this debate now focuses on one company’s decision, the implications go well beyond the mobile sector and even the whole technology industry. Companies and other organizations of all kinds responsible for managing personal data are concerned and need to be prepared to deal with the controversy’s impact.

To help deepen understanding about this complex issue, Burson-Marsteller, with their sister research firm Penn Schoen Berland, conducted a national opinion survey from February 23-24, 2016. The survey polled 500 General Population respondents (including 230 iPhone users) and 100 National Elites (individuals earning more than $100,000 per year who have college degrees and follow the news), and the results reveal critical communications issues around the fundamental conflict between privacy on the one hand and national security and safety on the other. Here are the key takeaways:

  • Overall awareness is high. Eighty-two percent of the General Population and 88 percent of National Elites have heard about the dispute. The news has gone viral, with people tweeting and posting on Facebook about it and commenting extensively online about news articles.
  •  The FBI should have access to one phone, not all phones. Respondents say the government should not be given a tool that potentially gives it access to all iPhones. Sixty-three percent of the General Population and 57 percent of National Elites say Apple should only provide the FBI with the data from the phone in question, and the tools to do it should never leave Apple’s premises. It is clear the public wants this decided on a case-by-case basis, and respondents do not trust law enforcement and national security agencies to self-police and protect privacy.
  •  The public expects companies to push back if there is the potential to violate privacy. Respondents say they want companies to protect the privacy of their data fully, even when the government is requesting data in the name of law enforcement or national security. A majority (64 percent of the General Population and 59 percent of Elites) says a company’s top obligation is to protect its customers’ data rather than cooperating with law enforcement or national security interests. However, most (69 percent of the General Population and 63 percent of Elites) see the need to compromise on privacy when terrorist threats are involved.
  • How the issue is framed determines public opinion. If the issue is framed as the FBI asking for access to this one phone, 63 percent of the General Population and 57 percent of Elites agree with the FBI position. If the issue is framed as potentially giving the FBI and other government agencies access to all iPhones, Apple’s position prevails overwhelmingly; 83 percent of the General Population and 78 percent of Elites agree Apple should either only grant access to the particular iPhone or refuse the request entirely.
  • Current laws are outdated. This situation reflects a much broader debate about privacy and security that will need to be resolved. About half (46 percent of the General Population and 52 percent of Elites) say current laws are outdated and need to be revised to reflect the changing role of technology in today’s society.

Regardless of the outcome of this current dispute, there is no question it is raising alarms about the state of data privacy. In the aftermath, companies will have to pay increasing attention to the expectations of their customers and consumers. The survey showed people are overwhelmingly concerned with the security and privacy of their digital data, with 90 percent of the General Population and 96 percent of National Elites saying they are very or somewhat concerned about the security and privacy of their personal information online or on their personal electronic devices. The Apple/DOJ dispute appears to be a turning point for all organizations trying to balance the demands of data privacy with national security and law enforcement considerations. The pressures on them are only going to grow.


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