As debate over Apple’s encryption lawsuit intensifies, presidential candidates tread carefully

Apple’s fight against a court order to help the FBI break the data encryption on the phone used by San Bernardino, Calif., mass killer Syed Rizwan Farook posed a high-profile, high-stakes dilemma for many presidential candidates.

The divisive topic rose to the spotlight just hours after Apple CEO Tim Cook replied to the California magistrate with a letter declaring that “the U.S. government has asked us for something we simply do not have, and something we consider too dangerous to create. They have asked us to build a backdoor to the iPhone.”

Recognizing the complexities of the encryption debate, however, many candidates on the campaign trail have been reluctant to discuss the case, or to take a stance on the broader issue of encryption backdoors.

On Wednesday morning, as online conversation about the topic swelled with the release of Cook’s letter, only Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Republican frontrunner Donald Trump took clear stands on the issue.

Related: What you need to know about Apple’s encryption fight with the FBI

“I agree 100 percent with the courts,” Trump said during a phone interview on Fox and Friends. “In that case we should open it up.”

Kasich, who has criticized the security limitations of encryption in the past and once suggested the topic should only be discussed behind closed doors, took a similar stance.

“I don’t think it’s an example of government overreach to say that, you know, we had terrorists here on our soil and we’ve got to understand more detail about who they may have been communicating with,” Kasich told the Associated Press.

It wasn’t until CNN’s Republican town hall later that day that candidates were asked to offer their opinions on the matter. All of them approached it cautiously.

“It’s a very complicated issue,” Marco Rubio told CNN’s Anderson Cooper during the forum in Greenville, S.C. “It protects your privacy. If you lose your iPad or your phone, no one can hack into it and get your information. … On the flip side of it, there might be valuable information on that phone … that could lead us to preventing future attacks.”

Cruz, on the other hand, argued that Apple had to cooperate with the FBI, but avoided taking a stand on the larger issue.

“They have a binding search order,” Ted Cruz said, referring to Apple. “I think we can walk and chew gum at the same time. We can protect ourselves from terrorists and protect our civil rights.”

Ben Carson took a similar stance, arguing that Apple would need to overcome its mistrust of the government.

Asked by Jose Diaz Balart at the MSNBC Thursday night town hall whether he was on the side of Apple or the FBI, Bernie Sanders said, “I’m on both; this is a very complicated issue.”

Similarly, Hillary Clinton declined to take a definitive viewpoint.

“I see both sides,” she said at the same event. “I think most citizens see both sides. This is why you need people in office who can try to bring folks together to find common ground.”

Related: Where the presidential candidates stand on encryption

The issue pits two compelling interests against each other: national security and personal privacy. Experts in tech policy say voters seem to line up on different sides of the question based, in part, on age.

According to Julie Samuels, executive director of the San Francisco-based policy and tech group Engine, digital natives who grew up using technology may be more concerned about compromised encryption than voters who did not.

“I feel differently about how I use my phone and my access to the Internet than my parents do,” Samuels told Yahoo News. “I fundamentally rely on it in a way that they don’t. There is a generational divide here that’s just the beginning of a trend that is going to continue for years to come, until we are all digital natives.”

Garrett Johnson, a co-founder of the conservative policy and tech group Lincoln Labs, says Silicon Valley libertarian conservatives are concerned about government overreach — an issue identified with Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who suspended his presidential campaign recently after failing to win much support in the polls.

“If it’s in the best interest of security, that’s very compelling,” Johnson told Yahoo News. “But I think most libertarians or conservatives would say, ‘We don’t necessarily think the government has the best track record when it comes to technology.’”

Johnson’s group is preparing to survey legislators on their views about emerging technologies, including encryption.

“In the absence of legislation and a voting record, the American people are completely in the blind on this issue,” Johnson said. “This issue is now becoming integral to our health care, to our financial background, to our personal backgrounds, because all of it is stored on our phones.”

The high-profile legal battle with Apple may force politicians to confront the issue more directly than they have until now — whether they want to or not.

“Huge, huge swaths of Americans have smartphones, whether or not Apple made them,” Samuels said. “I think it’s so fundamental to the way we all live that it really is going to strike a chord with young voters.”

Cover photo: The Verge/Vox Media Inc.