Americans support Apple over Feds in privacy debate: Survey

Public supports Apple over FBI: CNBC survey

Apple is gaining ground in winning the hearts and minds of the American public in the battle with the federal government over encryption.

A CNBC survey conducted before the Justice Department dropped its court order bid against the tech giant to unlock a terrorist's iPhone found that 57 percent of Americans agreed that privacy concerns trumped the needs of law enforcement in the debate. That was an increase from 53 percent in December's CNBC All-America Economic Survey.

In the latest poll, CNBC surveyed 802 Americans from March 21 through March 23, with the Brussels terror attacks falling in the middle. The margin of error was plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. Results broken down by day showed that the Brussels attack had little effect on the responses. The respondents continued to favor the software companies after the attack, just as they did before.

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It's a rare issue where agreement crosses party lines. Democrats favored the software companies 61 percent to 28 percent, with support 10 points higher than it was in December. Republicans favored encryption by 57 percent to 31 percent, with support rising by 4 points.

Apple had been in a pitched battled with the FBI investigation into the San Bernardino terrorist attack. The FBI could not break into an Apple iPhone left behind by one of the terrorists and went to court to force Apple to write code to allow access. But the Justice Department said Monday it was dropping its court order against Apple after it was able to unlock the iPhone used by gunman Syed Rizwan Farook.

CNBC asked a similar question about encryption twice, and in both cases, found support for the software companies. In the first question, CNBC asked simply whether software companies should not sell software and devices with encryption coding that prevents both criminals and law enforcement agencies form reading emails or messages. In that case, the respondents broke 39-23 percent in favor of the software companies. A large 24 percent said they did not know enough to have an opinion. That was down, however, from 35 percent in December, perhaps because the issue has received far more publicity.

In the next question, CNBC asked which of two statements they preferred, one that said companies should sell the software and device with encryption because it protects consumer data from criminals and the government. The second statement said technology companies should not sell the devices because criminals and terrorist organizations could communicate in secret, which would hinder law enforcement.

In that case, the percentage support for the tech companies actually rose, to 57 percent to 28 percent, even though the second statement mentions terrorist organizations. In addition, the percentage who declined to give an opinion fell by 9 points, perhaps because they were informed of the issue from the first question.

One big split in the poll was by education. Those with less than a high school education support the tech companies, 46 percent to 35 percent. Those with post-graduate educations support the tech companies 70 percent to 20 percent, a big jump in support from the December survey.