Civil Rights vs. Public Safety? Americans Weigh In

In December 2015, 14 people were killed and 22 injured in a mass shooting in San Bernardino, carried out by Syed Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik. In the course of the events that followed, Americans were suddenly faced with an ethical dilemma that challenged their fundamental beliefs about our civil liberties: are we willing to give up our privacy to feel safe?

In case you’ve missed the widespread media attention so far, here is how an iPhone, and Apple, have become the focus of a heated debate with the FBI: after 10 failed attempts to crack the password of Farook’s iPhone, law enforcement authorities triggered it to become ‘permanently inaccessible.’ In response, a Federal Court ordered Apple to develop code to unlock the iPhone. However, Apple refused to comply, on the grounds that creating the code would provide the FBI with technology that could be used to unlock any iPhone. What followed was a flood of debate, involving law enforcement, Congress, the courts, and Apple.

Yet what do Americans themselves believe? Although a Pew Research study indicated that a slight majority of Americans were in favor of unlocking the phone, several online polls of the American public lean in favor of Apple. No poll is perfect – even those weighted to best mirror the American population. But perhaps the more interesting observations lie in why Americans support or oppose Apple’s stance. What motivates our reasoning around issues of justness and civil rights?

On February 24 – 25th, JUST Capital conducted a short survey of 922 people, to add greater nuance to the discussion and gain a better understanding of the reasoning behind Americans’ choices. (See here for a short research brief on the results). Here’s what we found:

  • 53% completely or generally agreed that Apple writing code to help unlock the iPhone threatens people’s civil liberties and right to privacy.
  • Yet recognizing that the FBI request constituted a breach of privacy didn’t necessarily equate with support for Apple. 45% said they supported Apple’s decision to not comply with the request.

In our analysis of qualitative responses, survey takers surfaced clear themes in why they did or didn’t support Apple. Those supporting Apple tended to prioritize civil rights and expressed concern that providing the code led to a ‘slippery slope’ or ‘Pandora’s box,’ giving our law enforcement the ability to erode our freedom over time. Said one respondent, “Our government has been abridging our civil liberties and defying the constitution for over a decade to ‘enhance our security.’ We need to stop them now.” Others supporting Apple believed that a healthy discussion around our laws was an important element of the democratic process:“It is within [Apple’s] rights to have a further debate in court, in the public eye.” Respondents also noted that developing the code would represent a breach of Apple’s social contract with its customers – to provide secure, high-quality products and services.

Among the 37% opposed to Apple’s stance, many prioritized the safety of American citizens over other freedoms, while recognizing the complexity of the issue. Said one respondent, “I understand the two sides of this question… But I think the practical danger of a catastrophic terrorist event nudges out my (mostly) intellectual support for privacy rights….”

Perhaps one of the most interesting findings of our study was that people’s positions around subtle ethical issues are influenced by factors that aren’t immediately related to the specific situation. For example, several respondents who opposed Apple’s stance believed that it was a publicity stunt or questioned whether Apple was motivated by strong principles. One respondent also referenced flaws in Apple’s human rights record, suggesting that their overall belief in Apple’s justness influenced their decision. Skepticism towards Apple’s intentions also raised questions from some respondents on whether there were ways to unlock the phone without providing the FBI with free access to other phones.

These responses tell us that the company’s motivations and overall justness mattered. Trust in a company’s brand and general perceptions of a company’s behavior affects people’s support on seemingly unrelated issues.

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