That’s certainly how it appears to Wyden, the Democratic senator from Oregon who has been fighting for digital privacy for much of the 35 years he’s spent in Congress. Wyden says he expects the two sides of the Apple-FBI debate to converge as time goes on, as people learn more about the details of the situation.
I asked Wyden if he frames his arguments any differently when he’s speaking to Republicans and Democrats. No, he said: He’s been able to convince many of his colleagues from both parties just by explaining to them the intricacies of a debate he says has been “vastly oversimplified.”
“When you tell people the value of strong encryption, and the very substantial downsides that we’re talking about with respect to weak encryption, it doesn’t become ‘are you a D or an R,’” Wyden said. “It becomes, ‘Do you understand the technical challenge, or don’t ya?’”
In the absence of complete information, the public may also be relying on their impressions of the players in the Apple-FBI spat. Liberals are likely to be attracted to Tim Cook’s increasingly vocal advocacy for liberal civil-liberties issues such as LGBT rights and immigration, while the FBI may evoke Republicans’ long-standing allegiances to law enforcement.
Of course, nobody involved in the encryption debate has an incentive to frame it as anything but a bipartisan issue. Apple has called on the government to drop its suit, proposing that a Congressional commission would be a better place to air each side’s grievances, and government officials have repeatedly called for “more dialogue” to help Washington and Silicon Valley reach a mutually agreeable conclusion.
Even if digital privacy is starting to polarize Americans, it may be a short-lived development. In the past decade and a half, Americans’ attitudes toward privacy and surveillance—as well as the voting patterns of their senators and representatives—have fluctuated with national-security fears.
Right after 9/11, the first priority for Americans and their lawmakers was to protect the country from further acts of terrorism, paving the way for a toughening of surveillance laws in the Patriot Act. But according to polling from The Washington Post and ABC News, the post-9/11 consensus didn’t last long. By 2006, after news broke of warrantless wiretaps authorized by President George W. Bush, 73 percent of Democrats said the government was intruding on Americans’ privacy, compared to 50 percent of Republicans.
But by mid-2013, when Edward Snowden revealed the full extent of the NSA’s surveillance programs, Democrats and Republicans were in agreement again. A poll taken a month after the first leaks were published showed that 70 percent of Democrats and 77 percent of Republicans thought the government was overreaching.
After the San Bernardino shooting in December, fears of further terrorist attacks are growing, although Republicans are more worried than Democrats. This anxiety could help the FBI convince Americans—and certainly Republicans—that it needs to do more to secure information that could prevent the next attack.
If Congress moves soon to resolve the dispute at the heart of the Apple-FBI case, there exist cross-party coalitions of digital-security-savvy lawmakers who could band together to pass a law. But if Americans’ appetite for government intrusions into their digital lives begins to split again among party lines, a future Congress may find itself gridlocked even on privacy.