The court dispute between Apple and the Justice Department over unlocking the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone became a public relations war on Monday, with the FBI and Apple exchanging verbal blows on the Internet and Congress preparing to intervene.
For now, the FBI appears to be winning the battle, at least according to new polling from the Pew Research Center. But privacy advocates who support Apple plan rallies across the nation Tuesday, including one in front of the FBI’s headquarters in Washington.
Pew’s poll of more than 1,000 Americans found that just 38 percent support Apple’s refusal to help the FBI unlock the iPhone of San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook, who along with his wife killed 14 people in a San Bernardino, California, terror attack in December.
Fifty-one percent of those surveyed between Feb. 18 and Feb. 21 said Apple should unlock the phone. The other 11 percent were unsure.
Apple posted a long statement to its customers on its website Monday, offering the company’s justification for challenging a court order demanding Apple create a new operating system to open the phone.
Apple said it would set a dangerous legal precedent and expand government surveillance powers.
“Law enforcement agents around the country have already said they have hundreds of iPhones they want Apple to unlock if the FBI wins this case,” the statement said. “In the physical world, it would be the equivalent of a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks.”
Over the past week I’ve received messages from thousands of people in all 50 states, and the overwhelming majority are writing to voice their strong support
Apple CEO Tim Cook
That statement came just hours after FBI director James Comey, in an unusual online commentary posted just before midnight, said “I hope folks will take a deep breath and stop saying the world is ending.”
“We simply want the chance, with a search warrant, to try to guess the terrorist’s passcode without the phone essentially self-destructing and without it taking a decade to guess correctly,” Comey wrote. “That’s it. We don’t want to break anyone’s encryption or set a master key loose on the land.”
That assertion seemed open to question. Last week, New York District Attorney Cyrus Vance said that his office has 175 iPhones it wants Apple to unlock in criminal cases.
Others in law enforcement around the country have spoken of pursuing decryption of phones in criminal cases as well, signaling that Apple’s defeat in the case would spark a broader effort to get the company to open more phones.
Apple called on the government Monday to drop the court case in favor of a congressional “commission or other panel of experts on intelligence, technology, and civil liberties to discuss the implications for law enforcement, national security, privacy, and personal freedoms.”
New York District Attorney Cyrus Vance told Charlie Rose last week that his office has 175 iPhones it wants Apple to unlock.
“Apple would gladly participate in such an effort,” the company said.
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., and Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, are expected to introduce a bill this week to create a commission. Other lawmakers want to go further, though, with Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, and Richard Burr, R-North Carolina, working on a bill to force tech companies to assist law enforcement with decryption when there is a court order.
Congress is eager to get involved. The House Energy and Commerce Committee has invited Apple and the FBI to testify and “share their side of the story with the American people.”
Pressure grew on Apple also as a lawyer representing some of the victims and their families from the San Bernardino shootings said Monday that he will file a legal brief supporting the FBI in the case in hopes of getting more information about the attack and why those killed and wounded were targeted.
Apple CEO Tim Cook sent a letter to employees hours earlier saying that “over the past week I’ve received messages from thousands of people in all 50 states, and the overwhelming majority are writing to voice their strong support.”
The Pew poll showing a majority of Americans want Apple to unlock Farook’s phone raises the question of whether the company could see a business backlash. John Feland, CEO of Argus Insights, a research company that specializes in smartphone marketing, said he doesn’t think so.
“The U.S. market has become less and less important for Apple over the last few years,” Feland said.
Even in the U.S., where Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump is calling for a boycott of Apple products, Feland said he expects over the long term it won’t be a problem for the company.