Security

Survey: Americans split on Apple vs. FBI privacy dispute

Vrge Strategies found that Americans are split about whether Apple should help the FBI or remain defiant, but opinions differ when asked about their own personal data.

Apple CEO Tim Cook
Image: James Martin/CNET

The iPhone unlocking dispute between Apple and the FBI has Americans divided in their opinions about how technology companies should behave and whether the federal government is trustworthy, according to a new survey from Vrge Strategies.

WATCH: Apple vs. the FBI: An easy explanation

"This is something we chose to do because of personal interest," Vrge partner Tom Galvin explained. His company normally focuses on helping technology firms understand disruption and government policies, but has no conflicting interests on either side of the current battle, in which Apple is defying a federal court order to change iOS so that FBI investigators can attempt to crack a phone belonging to one of the San Bernardino shooters without its data being wiped.

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Vrge, in Washington, D.C., said just over 600 people answered its 10-question poll through SurveyMonkey. Asked directly how Apple should proceed, about 50% said the Cupertino, Calif.-based company should follow the court order, about 30% said Apple should stand its ground, and about 20% weren't sure. With the same question spun about their own personal data, only 45% said Apple should obey; 40% said they'd hope Apple refuses; and just 15% were not sure.

However, 67% of respondents said privacy still matters in the internet age; 24% said modern privacy is an unrealistic expectation; and the rest were undecided. The majority, 77%, added that they have nothing embarrassing to hide on their smartphones, but only 40% said they'd trust the FBI to examine that data, keep it confidential, and not somehow use it against them.

LISTEN: Apple's FBI standoff: Why it's a lot bigger than breaking into one device

Galvin said the results also showed that younger, poorer people were more likely to defend Apple, while older, wealthier people tend to agree with the government. Vrge did not release the data for that level of detail.

"Technology companies are in a bind right now because, post-Snowden, a lot of companies saw their revenues at risk because people did not want to work with an American company that's in bed with the government," observed Galvin, who previously had careers as a public relations official for Cisco Systems and VeriSign and was a White House reporter.

Galvin agreed that it is still possible for companies to present a public image of defending customer privacy while secretly working with the government. "I think that's true, and there's always been suspicions in the past," he noted. But, he said, "I think [Apple CEO] Tim Cook is the kind of guy who doesn't do that, personally."

Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, as expected, is an exception to the trend of older and wealthier people agreeing with the FBI. The legendary hacker took Cook's side in an interview with CNBC Thursday.

But what would Steve Jobs do?

Galvin didn't hesitate: "I think Steve Jobs probably would've tried to find an engineering solution that splits the difference."

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About

Evan Koblentz began covering enterprise IT during the dot-com boom times of the late 1990s. He recently published a book, "Abacus to smartphone: The evolution of mobile and portable computers".

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