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Apple v. the FBI: Where do Americans stand?

Two polls released this week appear to offer opposing pictures of public opinion of the ongoing encryption battle between Apple, Inc. and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

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People gather on Tuesday at a small rally in Santa Monica, Calif., in support of Apple's refusal to help the FBI access the cell phone of a gunman involved in the killings of 14 people in San Bernardino last year.

Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

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While federal officials and tech industry insiders have taken predictable sides in the ongoing legal battle between Apple, Inc. and the FBI, the pulse of the American public on the matter has been harder to read.

One poll, released Wednesday, suggests that more Americans – though not a resounding majority – support the technology company's decision not to help the Federal Bureau of Investigation hack into an iPhone used by San Bernardino, Calif., shooter Syed Rizwan Farook. The results of a Reuters/Ipsos poll released Wednesday that surveyed more than 1,500 adults throughout the United States this week found that around 46 percent of respondents agreed with Apple’s decision to reject a court order requiring it to unlock the cell phone used by Mr. Farook for law enforcement officials. Thirty-five percent disagreed with Apple’s stance.

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Controversy surrounding the tech giant’s move has boiled over since it was ordered last week, twice, to comply with federal requests to aid in the decryption of Farook’s San Bernardino county-issued device. Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive officer, responded to the orders with a public letter on the company's website last week, and followed up on Monday with a question and answer blog post explaining Apple’s position on the matter.

Farook, along with his wife Tashfeen Malik, were responsible for a December terror attack in San Bernardino, in which they killed 14 people at a Department of Public Health party and training session. While both Farook and Ms. Malik destroyed their personal phones before the incident, the FBI believes information on Farook’s phone could provide insight into the couple’s radicalization and possible links to other terror elements.

The results of the Reuters/Ipsos poll skew more in Apple’s favor than those released in a Pew Research Center poll on Monday. That survey showed only 38 percent of the more than 1,000 people asked believed that Apple should keep the iPhone locked, while 51 percent said it should aid law enforcement in unlocking the device. According to Reuters, that survey included a phrase citing the unlocking process as “an important part” of the FBI’s investigation into the shooting and its perpetrators, while the new poll included information on Apple’s justification that Pew’s did not.

The Reuters poll also provided insight on Americans’ views on privacy in general, with the majority of respondents saying they would not be willing to give up their personal email, internet activity, text messaging, or phone record data to aid government anti-terror efforts.

“People are very distrusting of everybody, but Americans actually trust Apple a bit more than the government on some issues,” Ipsos pollster Chris Jackson told Reuters.

“There is this tension: Americans want terrorists to be prosecuted, but in the context of issues about security and privacy, it becomes a much more nuanced discussion,” he added.