Apple and the Court of Public Opinion – Do 51% Support the FBI?

Opinion polls are an ever present part of our society. All too often, in the absence of real democracy, they seem to take on the role of the “people’s voice” in public debates.

I was fascinated by the recent headline from the Verge declaring More than half of Americans think Apple should comply with FBI, finds Pew survey and from the NY Times declaring In Poll on Apple, Public Sides with F.B.I..

Clearly the people had spoken. Or had they? Firstly Apple is a global company with 2/3 of their sale from outside the US. So it isn’t clear that the opinion of its US customers should come before those of other countries.

But more importantly polls are just samplings with their own biases. What did it mean for the NY Times to declare that a majority (51%) of the respondents sided with the FBI when by Pew’s own admission they had 24% of respondents admitted to knowing nothing about the case.

I decided to run my own survey of the US internet users as well as adult internet users in Canada, Australia and the U.K. In an attempt to replicate Pew’s results I made the question exactly the same. Unsurprisingly the answer to my survey did not produce a 51% majority and is much more ambiguous with ~32% holding no opinion:

Screenshot 2016-02-24 08.19.37

We see even more ambiguous results in the UK with ~47% expressing no opinion

Screenshot 2016-02-24 08.22.31

Similar results from Canada

Screenshot 2016-02-24 08.23.41

And from Australia

Screenshot 2016-02-24 08.24.40

In all four countries, the percentage of people that thought Apple should unlock the phone was in the mid 30’s and very close given the margin of error noted in the survey (in parenthesis for each result). But in no country was their a clear majority favoring Apple unlocking the phone.

And given the high percentage of folks in all of the countries that had no opinion including the US, it seems premature for the NY Times to declare that More than half of Americans think Apple should comply with FBI. 

Why the differences? Polls are not science. A lot depends on the context and presentation. Even the questions create bias. I, in emulating Pew, asked simply about unlocking the phone. The actual request is much more complicated than that and in fact Apple needs to create a custom version of their OS. Perhaps if I had asked that the answer would have been more definite one way or the other.

As much as possible pollsters attempt to remove their own biases but even things like the way a question was asked or the order that it was asked can impact outcome. For example in the case of the Pew survey,  there were 6 questions asked prior to asking the principal question and we have no idea what five of them were. The sixth question immediately preceding the main question could also have set the stage for an inflated answer:

Screenshot 2016-02-24 08.33.00

All surveys have a margin of error built in based on how large and representative the sample is. In the case of Pew, they asked 1000 people which is large enough to be sure that the margin of error is reasonable but it was not stated as to how much it actually was. That being said, making definitive conclusions as they do about attitudes of sub groups within the sample becomes much less reliable and will likely have a much greater (but non stated) margin of error.

Pew for example found no significant age preferences while the Google survey found a very strong age based preference:

Screenshot 2016-02-24 08.39.13

Finally methodology affects outcome. My surveys were done using Google Survey which admittedly only sample the US Adult Internet Population.

So has the US public decided? Has the greater global public decided (which is really Apple’s audience)? As much as Pew proclaims that they have I would assert that the court of public opinion, like our Supreme Court, is pretty evenly split and nowhere near a majority.

Here are the links to my surveys so that you can examine the results for yourself:

US Survey

UK Survey

Australian Survey

Canadian Survey

Please consider leaving a comment as your input will help me (& everyone else) better understand and learn about local.
Apple and the Court of Public Opinion - Do 51% Support the FBI? by

6 thoughts on “Apple and the Court of Public Opinion – Do 51% Support the FBI?”

  1. At this time I’m of the no opinion yet perspective. I find it interesting to see a variety of claims and facts and perspectives coming forth from defenders of one side or the other. Your survey results showed significant levels of undecided’s also…but also showed larger percentages favoring the FBI side than the Apple side…at least for now. Of course this thing will play out in venues different than the perspective of polls.

    As you referenced above about 2/3 of Apple’s revenues come from out of the US. That is an interesting side comment; I wonder how that plays into Apple’s perspective, or if at all.

    Interesting poll, Mike

  2. There’s a huge issue with the original Pew poll’s framing (though I’m glad you didn’t change it, since that would have introduced a totally different variable.)

    The original poll supposedly asked “In response to court order tied to ongoing FBI investigation of San Barnardino attacks, Apple… should (not) unlock iPhone.” Since the crux of the debate is whether it’s safe to let the FBI unlock one iPhone, knowing that they could then unlock any iPhone, the phrasing is key. Saying “should (not) unlock iPhone” sounds like it could refer to the device (his iPhone) almost as easily as it could refer to the platform (all iPhones.)

    The survey was conducted by phone, so unless the pollsters are absolutely clinical in the way they phrase their questions, it would be easy to insinuate that we’re only talking about a single device. Couple that with widespread misinformation about data security and fairly low education about the case (“24% of respondents admitted to knowing nothing about the case”) and you’ve got a recipe for mass confusion. If you didn’t know better, it could sound like Apple already has a backdoor and the FBI just wants to drop off that phone with them for a couple of hours. Or, that Apple would have to hack this individual phone in a way that couldn’t just be copied to another phone. Or even that Apple could make this backdoor version, keep it under lock and key, and only use it for strict anti-terrorism purposes.

    If it was clear to the surveyed that the FBI wants Apple to create a backdoor OS variant that could be used to access private, encrypted information on any iPhone without a court order, I hope the numbers would look totally different.

  3. @Dave
    Apple is truly a global company and their interests are trans and cross national in nature. While their position is principled I have no doubt that was made easier by the fact that the position is 100% consistent with their material interests. I am sure that their willingness to go up against the FBI was founded in their understanding of those material interests. I am not saying this was their goal but I wouldn’t doubt that this resistance to the FBI would assist their world wide brand image outside the US.
    If my survey is accurate then it would also benefit them in younger demographics within the US as well.

  4. @Joe
    There were issues with the Pew survey which was why I thought a second look would be helpful. When I started I hypothesized that I might get similar results within the US but different results outside the US. That obviously didn’t happen. But it is the job of the newspapers to also provide due diligence and the NYTimes did not rise to that charge.

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