President Obama used his historic appearance at the South By Southwest (SXSW) festival Friday in Austin, Texas to expound on the importance of innovation, making a point of not taking a side in the Apple/FBI conflict over accessing the data in the smartphone used in the San Bernardino terrorist attack. He said he could not make an official statement on the conflict at this time.
He did, however, address the question of how to find a balance between privacy and security.
Obama Sees Balance Needed
“We can’t take an absolutist view on this,” he said, recognizing both sides of the argument, according to a transcript of the remarks provided by Fortune Magazine.
He said he is confident the conflict between protecting public safety and personal privacy can be resolved.
The tech community and the people who care about the issue of privacy versus safety will help solve it. “Because what will happen is if everyone goes to their respective corners and the tech community says ‘Either we have strong, perfect encryption or else it’s Big Brother and an Orwellian world,’ what you’ll find is that after something really bad happens, the politics of this will swing, and they will become sloppy, and rushed, and it will go through Congress in ways that have not been thought through,” he said.
Technology Changes Choices
Prior to the invention of smartphones, if a criminal engaged in a terrorist plot, law enforcement had the right to use a warrant to search a person’s home to seek evidence of wrongdoing. “And we agreed on that because just like all of our other rights, there are going to be some constraints that we impose to ensure that we are safe, secure and living in a civilized society,” he said.
Complicating the matter is the desire to prevent terrorism or disrupting the financial system, the air traffic control system or a whole other set of increasingly digitized systems.
People on the encryption side will argue that any key, even if directed at one device, could eventually be used on every device. “That is a technical question. I am not a software engineer. It is, I think, technically true, but I think it can be overstated,” Obama said.
Snowden Disclosure Raised Suspicions
Obama noted the Snowden disclosure elevated suspicion of government oversight. He said the Snowden issue overstated the dangers to U.S. citizens since intelligence agencies are scrupulous about U.S. citizens on U.S. soil. The Snowden disclosures identified excesses overseas.
The President said he understands the importance of privacy, and that government should not “willy nilly” get into smartphones to view personal data. While urging audience members to not take an absolutist view, he said the government will eventually have to make clear that the circumstances by which it is acceptable to bypass security on devices that become part of a criminal investigation.
If it is possible to make a device completely impenetrable, such protection would shield a child pornographer. “How do we disrupt a terrorist plot? How do we even do a simple thing like tax enforcement?” he asked. He said concessions will be needed for law enforcement to get necessary information.
Also read: FBI’s claim that only Apple can unlock the iPhone is ‘horseshit,’ says Edward Snowden
Decisions Are Needed
Setting aside the case between the FBI and Apple, Obama said decisions must be made on balancing “respective risks.” “The dangers are real. This notion that sometimes our data is different and can be walled off from these other trade-offs is incorrect.”
Obama said the answer will come down to creating a system where the encryption is as strong as possible, the key is as secure as possible, accessible by the smallest possible number of people, for a subset of important issues. “How we design that is not something I have the expertise to do.”
The President said he is on the civil liberties side of the debate. But he noted he is not interested in “overdrawing” the values that have made the U.S. an exceptional nation simply for expediency. The dangers are real, and maintaining law and order is important.