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Apple has support of independent voters in FBI iPhone battle

In a 2-to-1 margin, independent voters say the iPhone maker shouldn't cooperate with government efforts to crack open a terrorist's iPhone, according to a new poll.


Overall, American voters are evenly divided over whether Apple should cooperate with FBI efforts to crack open a terrorist's iPhone. But independents are pretty firm in their support.

James Martin/CNET

Apple has at least one firm political ally in its fight with the FBI over an encrypted iPhone linked to the deadly San Bernardino terrorist attack: the independent voter.

Overall, Americans asked about the case are equally divided as to whether national security interests outweigh privacy concerns, according to a poll of registered voters released Tuesday. The poll, conducted by Wall Street Journal and NBC News, asked respondents which scenario concerned them more: that the US won't go far enough in monitoring terror suspects' communications, or that the government would go too far and violate the privacy of its citizens.

Overall, 47 percent said they feared the government wouldn't go far enough in protecting national security, while 44 percent feared it would intrude too far into citizens' privacy. Republicans leaned toward protecting national security over a government overreach concerns, 57 percent to 37 percent, respectively. Meanwhile, Democrats were a little more evenly split on the subject, with 50 percent worrying the government would go too far and 40 percent worrying it wouldn't go far enough.

The only voter group that seems to be siding with Apple on the issue is the independent voter. By a 2-to-1 margin, independent voters, who don't tend to identify with either major US political party, said Apple shouldn't cooperate with the FBI's efforts to crack open a phone (58 percent). Only 28 percent of independents said the company should cooperate.

The poll results give a little more insight into the closely-watched and intensifying standoff between Apple and the feds. At issue is whether courts and law enforcement agencies can compel Apple to break the iPhone's security features.

In arguing for a February 16 court order, the FBI said the situation is specific to the single iPhone 5C used by one of the terrorists involved in a December massacre in San Bernardino, California, in which 14 people died and 20 others were wounded. Apple CEO Tim Cook says if the government gets its way, the company's phones will be inherently less secure.

The encryption debate is complex and divisive among US citizens, according to multiple surveys. A Pew study found about 51 percent of those surveyed believed Apple should comply with the court order, while 38 percent said the tech giant shouldn't unlock the iPhone. However, a Reuters poll had opposite results. About 46 percent actually agreed with Apple's stance and 35 percent disagreed. In a CNET poll with more than 22,000 responses, an overwhelming majority sided with Apple's refusal to assist.

Besides the support of the independent voter, Apple also has the backing of more than 40 top tech companies, including Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft, that filed amicus briefs last week to show their support for Apple in the battle.

A court hearing to determine whether Apple should be forced to comply with the FBI's request is set for March 22 in federal court in Riverside, California.

Apple declined to comment on the poll, which surveyed 1,200 registered voters between March 3 and 6.