Obama warns against ‘absolutist views’ on encryption

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Obama at SXSW
President Obama spoke at SXSW Interactive today.
Photo: WH.gov

President Barack Obama was in Austin, Texas, for the opening day of the South by Southwest Interactive festival, and talk turned inevitably to the current tension between law enforcement and tech companies on subjects like security and citizen privacy.

The president couldn’t comment on the specific case that has Apple and the FBI fighting over whether the government can compel a private company to provide access to a locked device (in this case, an iPhone 5c belonging to San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook). But he did provide some insight into the government’s view of the ongoing legal battle.

You can check out the whole conversation in the video below; the session starts about 39 minutes in.

“You’re trying to persuade the tech community that they should work with government,” said Evan Smith, editor-in-chief of The Texas Tribune, who interviewed the president. “But it looks to at least some of the tech community that government is the enemy, at least in the way it’s dealing with Apple.”

“All of us value our privacy,” Obama said. “And this is a society that is built on a Constitution and a Bill of Rights and a healthy skepticism about overreaching government power. [. . .] We recognize that just like all of our other rights, that there are going to be some constraints imposed in order to ensure that we are safe, secure and living in a civilized society. Technology is evolving so rapidly that new questions are being asked, and I am of the view that there are very real reasons why we want to make sure that the government cannot just willy-nilly get into everybody’s smartphones that are full of very personal information and very personal data.”

Smith asked Obama where he comes down on striking a balance between the needs of law enforcement to fight crime and the needs of citizens to have privacy.

“I am way on the civil-liberties side of this thing,” Obama replied. “I anguish a lot over the decisions we make to keep this country safe, and I am not interested in overthrowing the values that have made us an exceptional and great nation simply for expediency. But the dangers are real, maintaining law and order and a civilized society is important, protecting our kids is important.”

The president described absolute, ironclad security as a hurdle to the government performing even basic tasks, including tax enforcement. If authorities have no way to get at information, he claimed, “everybody’s walking around with a Swiss bank account in their pocket.”

“My conclusion so far is that you cannot take an absolutist view on this,” he said. “If your argument is strong encryption no matter what, we can and should create black boxes, that I think does not strike the kind of balance that we have lived with for 200, 300 years, and it’s fetishizing our phones above every other value. And that can’t be the right answer.”

The president also stated the importance of encryption, saying that strong security is crucial to protecting government systems like air-traffic control which, if attacked, could put thousands of lives in danger.

Obama cited several “compromises” we’ve struck in the past and questioned why our data was so much more important than the investigations we willingly undergo every time we fly. By the president’s admission, he “hasn’t flown commercial in a while,” but we have trouble seeing the one-to-one parallel between potential vulnerabilities in our financial data and a TSA groping. But we know they’re both deeply unpleasant prospects that few would choose if given the option.

“I’m confident that this is something we can solve,” Obama said. “But we’re going to need the tech community to help us solve it. If everybody goes to their respective corners, what you’ll find is that after something really bad happens, the politics of this will swing, and it will be sloppy and rushed, and it will go through Congress in ways that have not been thought through. And then you really will have dangers to our civil liberties because the people who understand this best and who care most about privacy and civil liberties have disengaged.”

Update — March 15, 1:42 p.m.: An earlier version of this article misidentified the interviewer. We have updated the post and apologize for the mistake.