Modern field guide to security and privacy

At SXSW, Obama asks tech community to compromise on encryption

Speaking to a tech-savvy crowd at the South By Southwest festival in Texas this weekend, President Obama made his strongest statement yet in support of law enforcement access to consumer devices – but said that the debate should not be defined by extremes on either side.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
President Obama speaks at the South By Southwest Interactive festival on March 11, 2016.

President Obama parachuted in to the South by Southwest Interactive festival in Austin this weekend, where some tens of thousands of entrepreneurs, coders, and executives are gathering to hear the most creative ideas in technology, with a pitch of his own: Recruiting fresh digital talent to the US government.

But his hiring mission was overshadowed by a debate that has pitted many in the tech industry against US officials, especially since the San Bernardino, Calif. terror attacks:  What’s the right balance to strike on protecting national security and American citizens’ privacy when it comes to encryption?

In his strongest statement to date on this issue, Mr. Obama insisted that, to ensure the country remains safe and secure, law enforcement and intelligence agencies must have a way to get around encryption for investigations into terrorism and child pornography.

“If your argument is strong encryption, no matter what, and we can and should in fact create black boxes, that in fact does not strike the kind of balance that we’ve lived with for 200, 300 years,” he said on Friday. “It’s fetishizing our phones above every other value – and that can’t be the right answer.”

If strong encryption on a device or system doesn’t allow law enforcement to get into the device with a warrant, he said, “then how do we apprehend the child pornographer?  How do we solve or disrupt a terrorist plot?  What mechanisms do we have available to even do simple things like tax enforcement? Because if in fact, you can't crack that at all, government can't get in, then everybody is walking around with a Swiss bank account in their pocket – right?  So there has to be some concession to the need to be able to get into that information somehow.”

Obama refused to comment directly on the Justice Department’s push to force Apple to write new software that would disable security features on an iPhone belonging to San Bernardino shooter Syed Rizwan Farook to help law enforcement access the data. 

Still, his comments indicate that he does not agree with the position Apple and many other companies are taking in a legal battle many see as a test case for a broader fight over encryption on consumer devices. 

Apple, the world’s largest tech company, insists that building a new, weaker operating system for the government to bypass the encryption on the product would amount to a backdoor that could unlock all sorts of devices and put its millions of consumers at risk. A slew of tech companies have also joined the fight, filing legal briefs to a US magistrate judge overseeing the case.

At the Austin-based gathering that’s increasingly become a hub for Silicon Valley innovators, Obama called for a way forward on the encryption debate – and for both sides of the debate to find middle ground. The right answer, he proposed, could be “a system where encryption is as strong as possible, the key is as secure as possible,” and potentially accessible to a small subset of federal investigators.

Obama also said government agencies should not be able to get into iPhones “just willy nilly” and emphasized his concern for preserving citizens’ privacy.  “I am way on the civil liberties side of this thing…. I anguish a lot over the decisions we make in terms of how to keep this country safe,” he said, “and I am not interested in overthrowing the values that have made us an exceptional and great nation simply for expediency.”

Also at SXSW, Passcode will host its own panel – “Cryptowars 2.0: Silicon Valley v. Washington” – exploring these very issues with key figures in the encryption debate, including noted cryptographer Matt Blaze and former National Security Agency counsel Stewart Baker.

While the commander-in-chief had a patient audience of more than 2,000 people in the convention hall, the idea of creating a way into encrypted devices did not sit well with one Congressman attending the festival.

“There’s just no way to create a special key for government that couldn’t also be taken advantage of by the Russians, the Chinese, or others who want access to the sensitive information that we all carry in our pockets every day,” said Rep. Darrell Issa, a California Republican who grilled FBI Director James Comey on the subject at a House Judiciary Committee hearing last week.

The first American president to attend South By Southwest, Obama also used the forum to promote the US Digital Service, the federal government’s fledgling civil service designed for the connected world, and Washington’s role in bringing together social media companies and content creators to fight the Islamic State online.

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