Obama tells SXSW tech industry and govt need to strike a balance on encryption

14 Mar 2016

US President Barack Obama on stage Friday with Evan Smith, the editor-in-chief of The Texas Tribune

US president Barack Obama told SXSW in Austin, Texas, on Friday that smartphones like the iPhone simply can’t become black boxes where critical evidence in investigations can’t be accessed.

His point of view comes at the height of tensions between Silicon Valley and the US Department of Justice over the issue of investigators in the San Bernardino case seeking access to encrypted information on an iPhone that may yield vital evidence.

Tech giant Apple has found support from most of the major tech companies in America, which agree with its stance that creating a backdoor into the iPhone’s encrypted memory could end up being exploited by the criminal world and repressive regimes. Apple CEO Tim Cook described such a step as creating the “software equivalent of cancer”.

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However, at SXSW, Obama, known as the US’ “first social media president” called for reason to prevail and said that there can be no absolute views on the issue.

‘This notion that somehow our data is different and can be walled off from those other trade-offs we make, I believe, is incorrect’

In an interview with Evan Smith, the editor-in-chief of The Texas Tribune, Obama spoke broadly about the need for technology to be used to support civic life and the functioning of democracy.

However, he pulled no punches when it came to the issue of encryption of smart devices and called for a rational and reasonable approach by tech companies to supporting the work of law enforcement.

He said that for law enforcers the fact that a device exists with evidence that can’t be accessed is unconscionable.

At the same time, individuals are entitled to their privacy.

Obama urges tech CEOs not to take an absolutist view on encryption

“You cannot take an absolutist view on this,” Obama said.

“If your argument is strong encryption no matter what, and we can and should create black boxes, that I think does not strike the kind of balance we have lived with for 200, 300 years, and it’s fetishising our phones above every other value.”

Obama said that rapid advances in technology offer enormous opportunities but are also disruptive and unsettling.

“They empower individuals to do things that they could never have dreamed of before but they also empower folks who are very dangerous to spread dangerous messages.”

Obama said that there needs to be a balance and asked how it is possible to enable law enforcement to fully investigate with warrants suspected paedophiles but yet digital information has to be treated differently.

“If, technologically, it is possible to make an impenetrable device or system, where the encryption is so strong that there is no key, there is no door at all, then how do we apprehend the child pornographer? How do we disrupt a terrorist plot?”

He added that if investigators can’t access smartphones with warrants “then everyone is walking around with a Swiss bank account in your pocket”.

Obama said that tech executives who are “absolutist” on the issue are just wrong.

“This notion that somehow our data is different and can be walled off from those other trade-offs we make, I believe, is incorrect.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years