By Amir Nasr
February 22, 2016 at 2:36 pm ET
The saga between tech and law enforcement over encryption has erupted into the public eye with Apple bucking a federal court order to help police get into the iPhone of a San Bernardino shooter. The case, the tech community argues, could have massive implications for encrypted communications and the security of Americans’ personal information.
However, Morning Consult’s polling data shows that not many Americans go out of their way to encrypt their personal communications. Just 20 percent of respondents said they have encrypted a message or a phone call, compared to 80 percent who said they haven’t.
The data comes from Morning Consult’s Policy Index, which has compiled responses from 13,915 registered voters between late October and mid-February.
Younger people are slightly more likely to use encryption apps to add a layer of protection to text messages or phone calls, but not by much. About one-fourth of respondents under the age of 44 said they had encrypted a message or phone call on at least one occasion. After that, the numbers drop to 20 percent for ages 45 to 54 and in the teens for people over 55.
The poll results reflect people’s proactive use of encryption, although many tech companies encrypt their users’ messages anyway, even if the customers don’t know it.
For example, Apple’s iMessages use end-to-end encryption so that only the readers and senders of the messages can actually read their contents. That means that no outside entity (including Apple itself) can decrypt and read those messages.
WhatsApp, which as of Feb. 1 has a billion users worldwide, is also in the process of rolling out end-to-end encryption for its users. The company said in January that it is a few months away from finishing that service outright. The company currently encrypts the messages between a phone and WhatsApp’s server.
Both iMessages and WhatsApp will encrypt a user’s communications without any prodding, which plays into the argument of the tech industry (and some in Congress) that encryption is already a widespread practice, even if people don’t realize it.
Morning Consult’s poll results show that encryption hasn’t taken off for the generic user. Those who do actively encrypt the communications use programs such as Pretty Good Privacy (PGP).
PGP users create two “keys,” one public and one private. The public key can be shared with anyone, and those with an individual’s public key would use it to encrypt a message to that person so only the intended recipient could read it. The only way for someone to decode the message would be to use the private key, which as the name implies, presumably only the recipient knows. Recipients use the private key to decode the encrypted message sent to them using the initial public key.
While the Morning Consult data implies the method isn’t widely used, PGP works well in tandem with other services. Facebook doesn’t encrypt messages on its own, but now allows for users to add their own OpenPGP public keys.
The data was collected through 14 polls conducted from Oct. 22, 2015 to Feb. 16, 2016 among a national sample of 13,915 registered voters.
The Morning Consult Policy Index is an ongoing poll of voters’ opinions about economic, technology, health, and environmental issues. The poll questions are designed to reflect national policy debates without referencing political parties or ideological identities. As data accumulates, Morning Consult can to identify small changes in public opinion and parse responses across narrow demographic attributes like employment status, prior voting activity, or religious affiliation.
Amir Nasr previously worked at Morning Consult as a reporter covering tech.