Big Tech v Big Brother: How is the issue of privacy discussed on social media?

06 Apr 2016 8:36 am by Megan Burnside

A six-week public battle between Apple and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) over a legal demand that Apple assist the FBI with its attempt to 'hack' the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino killers has been concluded.  It appears the FBI has, with the assistance of an unnamed third party, successfully hacked into the phone without Apple's help.

The tables turn for Apple

In an ironic turn of events it is now Apple that needs assistance from the FBI, which has declined to disclose how it evaded Apple's in-built security.  For a company that markets its devices as the most secure on the market, and places the privacy of its users above all else, an unknown vulnerability with the potential to compromise millions of phones around the world is a reputational iceberg for Apple.

The issue of digital security and personal privacy has been a hot topic in the tech industry since Edward Snowden revealed thousands of classified National Security Agency (NSA) documents to journalists in 2013.  Apple's battle with the FBI over access to its handset has once again highlighted the conversation in the global media, but do cases like this actually affect conversations around privacy between people on social media?

Privacy: a very public issue

Analysis using LexisNexis Newsdesk shows an expected increase in posts relating to 'privacy and Apple' over the six week period of the case, however, when compared to the frequency of posts relating to privacy alone over the same period, the increase in interest is not as marked.  Posts mentioning privacy alone over the same period fall number around 600 articles per week, increasing to 1000 during the case, before returning to the baseline of 600.

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A comparison of the two search terms shows two things.  Firstly, it demonstrates how important the issue of privacy is to people who use social media: the issue is consistently discussed in the public forum.  Secondly, it shows that while high profile cases such as this receive a great deal of attention on social media, their impact on the conversation as a whole is limited.

Social sentiment: subtle insight

The sentiment of the social media conversation of privacy specifically, and its relationship to the Apple case, gives a subtle insight.  Discussions of privacy alone are proportionately more positive.  27.75% of the posts were found to have a positive sentiment, while just 14.62% were found to be negative.  When the same analytics are applied to discussions of privacy and Apple, positive sentiment decreases to just 17%.

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The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has claimed that the privacy dispute between the FBI and Apple was not an isolated instance but "part of a sustained government effort to exercise novel law enforcement power" over mobile devices.  While it is difficult to draw comprehensive conclusions from such subtle movement in sentiment, it could be argued that the difference does offer potential insight into the public perception of the FBI's actions.

The conversation must go on

It is clear that a sound policy on a government's ability to access private personal devices is necessary in the modern digital landscape.  The San Bernardino case is an indication of a wider industry issue, and just one landmark in a debate surrounding a wide range of issues that extend far beyond privacy to public safety, surveillance, governmental intrusion, corporate power, and the fragility of technology.