Pew Research Survey Finds Majority Side with FBI Against Apple (Using Wrong Question)

| Analysis

The FBI is currently winning the battle of public opinion in its battle to force Apple to create a backdoor into iOS. The Pew Research Center published the results of a survey that found 51 percent of adults, 18 years of age or older, living in the continental United States, agreed with the FBI that Apple should unlock the iPhone used by a terrorist involved in an attack in San Bernardino, CA, in December of 2015.

Pew Survey Totals

Pew Survey Chart

Pew surveyed 1,002 people, half on landlines and half on cellphones. 51 percent sided with the FBI, while 38 percent thought that Apple should not unlock the iPhone. In reality, Apple has not been ordered to unlock the iPhone, but instead was ordered to create a new operating system that could be sideloaded onto the iPhone in question so that the FBI can brute force attack the device.

In that regards, the Pew survey was flawed to begin with. Apple can't unlock the device, nor can anyone else. A more nuanced survey would have asked if Apple should be forced to create a backdoor into iOS allowing the FBI to access the device. The results might have been the same. Or not. It would be interesting to know, and it's too bad Pew screwed up this question so significantly.

That said, there was an interesting aspect of this survey: "75% say they have heard either a lot (39%) or a little (36%) about the situation." That's a high level of awareness for an issue that is nuanced and difficult to grok.

When the results are limited to those who owned an iPhone, the results were 47 percent in favor of Apple "unlocking the iPhone" compared to 43 percent who think Apple should not. While less than a majority, those numbers still favor the FBI.

Pew Survey iPhone Owners

Pew Survey Chart

Other interesting notes include that the younger the respondent, the more likely they were to believe Apple should not "unlock the iPhone." Those registered as Republican or Democrat were similarly inclined towards believing Apple should unlock the device, while independents were closer to evenly split. Even more interesting, Democratic-leaning independents were significantly more disposed towards Apple's point of view.

Pew Surveys Age Differences

Pew Chart

Popular TMO Stories


Joseph Clark

It’s not just the percentage of people that presented themselves as being knowledgeable about the case that seems off. There’s also the fact that Democrats rated as being more concerned for their privacy than Republicans. That would surprise me.

This case is not about a single phone. It’s about the software that the FBI is attempting to force Apple into making. Once that software is created, it can be used on any iPhone and by anyone that has access to the software. It would probably also work with iPads, pods and possibly laptops/desktops. The privacy is something I enjoy with owning Apple products. I also enjoy potential thieves knowing that if they steal my devices, I can track them and brick the phone/tablet from one of my other devices.
I don’t want to give them a key to my devices either.


Why I’m not hopeful:
From Start Trek: The Menagerie
VINA: ...but you can’t keep it up for long enough. I’ve tried. They keep at you and at you year after year, tricking and punishing, and they won.

Yes those of us who understand the technical foundations of the argument are angry at what the FBI is trying to do. The trouble is time. We fight and write letters. We protest and make our outrage known. Sometimes they even let us feel like we’ve won. but they keep at us. They keep pushing. We beat one system, it comes back in other ways. We push back against the Patriot Act. It’s reformed in Patriot II, which quietly makes things worse. We get them to promise to stop domestic spying, but it goes on in other guises.

So we might get them to drop this action, but they will keep at it. They will keep pushing, keep sneaking around in the dark. Keep picking up information and secret ways into stuff they have no right to see. They will keep trying to break into databases, and accounts, and files they have no reason to see, just because they can. Quietly, insidiously, they will get ahold of everything, and once the FBI knows how to do it, so will the NSA, MI6, Mossad, The Chinese, Russians, North Koreans, Yakuza, Mafia, and on and on down to the petty criminal with a phone on a street corner.

Soon hacking a device, be it iOS or Android, or Windows, or whatever and draining a bank account will be more common than holding up someone at gunpoint. And then the FBI will come back and say “See we told you we needed this to fight crime.” And security services will then come back demanding even more power to fight against it. Against the very monster they are creating.

I’ll leave you with another quote from Star Trek
Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.


The PEW researches who designed the survey questions don’t seem to understand the issue.


It’s all a matter of which question is asked.

Do you think the FBI should be able to learn what is on the phone of a multiple killer, even though this would violate any rights to privacy that the killer might have? Absolutely, yes.

Do you think there will be a lot of useful information, considering that his is the killer’s work phone, that he owned a computer and removed the hard drive which disappeared, that he owned two other phones that he destroyed, and that he didn’t bother destroying this one? And considering that leaving evidence on a work phone would be stupid? Maybe not.

Do you think whatever information might be gained is worth the risk that as a result your phone, and everyone else’s iPhone might be at risk of being opened up by hackers, criminals, even terrorists? Hmmh. That doesn’t sound good.

... and the phones of police officers, army personnel, doctors and nurses, muslims who speak up against terrorism in their community, and so on, are it risk, and as a result these people’s lives? Well, absolutely not.

Brylar Foustark

Love how they keep referencing “terrorism” since we have decided to define terrorism not by act but only actors.


As an outside observer, I am bemused that many nominally “small government / anti-government overreach” people are taking the FBIs side, while many (within the tech industry) who are otherwise supportive of extensive government intervention are defending Apple.



The Pew study and its largely unhelpful findings is not surprising. Medical and science tomes abound with correct answers to the wrong questions,from which those not sufficiently steeped in the complexities of the problem they seek to address attempt to draw conclusions about a problem that these data do not address, or as one of my medical school professors was wont to say, they attempt to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear.

This is not because these investigators are either stupid or malfeasant, neither of which I would subscribe either to the Pew investigators. Rather, it’s because good science is hard to conduct. Getting the correct answers requires asking the right questions. This in turn requires both a deep and nuanced understanding to the problem one is trying to solve, an understanding of those tangential issues that one is not trying to solve, and how to convey that question to a layperson in such a manner that they will reliably and consistently respond with the information that one seeks. This is not easy, and it is far too common for very smart people to end up with the right answers to the wrong questions. This is why thorough investigators will not only get peer review of their study design, but will field test their questionnaires prior to deployment.

A related problem is one inherent in the question Pew put to the respondents, namely whether they had heard a lot or a little about the issue. Again, this is not a helpful question and the response is all but useless, perhaps worse than useless. The real question is what did they hear, or more specifically, how much have they heard in relation to what Apple is actually being asked to do (create a backdoor) and what that means - a subject that the Pew investigators themselves imperfectly understood. It is not uncommon for questionnaire respondents to think that they know a topic better than they actually do, and supply information from facts that are, at best, only tangentially related, or worse, completely unrelated. Only by proper design can a questionnaire separate this chaff from the kernel of knowledge one seeks.

The more complicated the topic, the more important questionnaire design is, and this is definitely a topic whose complexity and implications even those with similar tech or law enforcement backgrounds struggle to understand and over which they strongly disagree with their colleagues.

My personal belief remains that should the public truly appreciate what Apple are being asked to do, and its implications for not only iPhone users in one country but all smartphone users in every country, the vast majority would conclude that this is not only too high a price to pay for a single act of terrorism, but an unacceptable acquiescence to one of the terrorists’ greatest objectives, the surrender of a protective liberty. Worse, this surrender telegraphs to bad guys how to protect themselves while leaving the rest of us vulnerable not only from their attacks, but to multiple threat vectors from state and criminal actors.



It would be terrific if we could restore editing on posted comments. Whether I can assign the grammatical errors in my previous post to autocorrect, which I had to disable multiple times, or my writing the post while conducting two separate discussions, it would still be great to edit for clarity.


Bryan Chaffin

Changes are nigh, wab95. More details to come. I apologize yet again for any frustration.

Log in to comment (TMO, Twitter or Facebook) or Register for a TMO account