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Modern field guide to security and privacy

In the Apple v. FBI clash, the public is still on the sidelines

Finding Patterns

Privacy advocates organized rallies in some 40 cities Tuesday night to drum up support for Apple in the iPhone case. But attendance was sparse in some cities and the public's interest lackluster in others. 

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    Several Pro-Apple demonstrators rallied in New York City on Feb. 23.
    Shannon Stapleton/Reuters
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Apple's stand against the FBI has sparked a raucous debate on social media and in tech policy circles, but reactions from the broader public don't appear, at least for now, firmly on one side or the other.

That was evident Tuesday night as digital rights and civil liberties groups organized nationwide protests to support Apple's resistance against an FBI request to help access an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino, Calif., shooters. 

In Boston, some 30 people crowded in front of an Apple Store. They held banners and signs that read, “Don’t break our phones.” The largest protest appeared to be in San Francisco, where some 50 Apple supporters rallied, but in New York City only about eight people turned out for the pro-Apple rally, according to USA Today.

Recommended: Influencers: Apple should not help FBI crack San Bernardino iPhone

At the rally in Boston, few passersby gave the protesters more than a second look. And several people who this reporter spoke with about the demonstrators either hadn't followed the debate between the FBI closely or didn't have any opinion on the issue. 

According to a recent Pew Research Center study, public opinion narrowly sides with the FBI. The study of just over 1,000 Americans found that 51 percent supported Apple “unlocking” the shooter’s phone, 38 percent said Apple should not help the FBI, and 11 percent were unsure.

The controversy erupted after Apple said it would contest a California judge's order that it help the FBI disable several security measures so the agency could access a phone used by Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the shooters in the December terrorist attack that killed 14 people.

While the FBI argues this is in the interest of national security, Apple and many privacy advocates argue that such assistance sets a dangerous precedent, one that could be used to compel the same kind of access to other iPhones or software from other companies.

Tuesday's rallies were among the first attempts to garner support from the broader public for unbreakable encryption on consumer devices. A day later, Apple CEO Tim Cook gave his first interview since the Apple iPhone controversy erupted, broadening the digital privacy versus national security conversation to an audience beyond the tech set.

"If a court can ask us to write this piece of software, think about what else they could ask us to write. Maybe it's an operating system for surveillance, maybe the ability for the law enforcement to turn on the camera," Mr. Cook said on the ABC News program "World News Tonight." "I don't know where this stops. But I do know that this is not what should be happening in this country."

Among the demonstrators who gathered Tuesday at the Apple Store on Boylston Street were several who worked in the tech industry.

"While I don’t agree with a lot of the things Apple has done over the years, the stance [Tim Cook is] taking right now is really brave,” said Molly de Blanc of Boston who has worked in open source software for several years. "It’s really powerful that he’s looking at what their responsibilities are to Apple customers."

The digital rights nonprofit Fight for the Future, which has become a leading voice in support of Apple's stance and other pro-privacy issues, organized rallies in more than 40 cities Tuesday. 

Chris Gladney, a Web developer who attended the rally, said the issue for him comes down to protecting consumers' privacy. "I’m probably more excited to have an iPhone at this point now knowing how hard Apple is fighting to protect consumer privacy."

Mr. Gladney said he wasn't surprised by the close results of the Pew Survey because of the technical nature of the controversy. 

Still, Apple supporter Sheila Park, a former college professor, was alarmed. "It’s scary to me that 51 percent of people who live in America think it’s ok that our government wants to spy on us,” she said. “Are you kidding?”

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