Reporter Silicon Hills News

ObamaSXSWAt South by Southwest on Friday, President Barack Obama discussed the importance of balancing civil liberties with the need for law enforcement to protect the public and cautioned the tech industry against taking an absolutist view about encrypting smartphones and never allowing government to unlock them.

Texas Tribune Editor in Chief Evan Smith asked President Obama during a SXSW keynote talk at the Long Center for the Performing Arts about how the Federal government protects citizen’s privacy versus the need for security. He mentioned the case in which a federal court last month ordered Apple to unlock an iPhone for the FBI investigating suspected terrorists who killed 14 people during an attack in San Bernardino, California last December.

President Obama said he could not comment about the specific case but he did talk about the importance of allowing access to an iPhone or smartphone, in general, in cases where public safety is at risk. Obama spoke to about 2,000 people including technology industry executives, entrepreneurs and SXSW badgeholders who won tickets in a special lottery.

“All of us value our privacy,” Obama said. “This is a society that is built on a constitution and a bill of rights and a skepticism of government overreaching its power.”

But that privacy can be breached. If law enforcement has probable cause, they can get a court warrant and search your home, Obama said.

“They can go into your bedroom and riffle through your underwear to see if there’s any evidence of wrong doing,” Obama said. “And we agree on it just like we recognize with all of our other rights like freedom of speech and freedom of religion that some constraints we impose in order to make sure we are safe, secure and living in a civilized society.”

Edward Snowden’s disclosing classified U.S. documents has elevated people’s suspicions of the government and privacy. But Obama assured the audience he wasn’t sitting in the situation room tracking people on a giant screen like it’s depicted in popular culture.

“Sometimes I’m just trying to get a connection,” Obama said, generating a lot of laughter from the audience.

“The Snowden issue vastly overstated the dangers to U.S. citizens in terms of spying,” Obama said.

In 2013, Snowden, a former CIA employee and federal contractor, released classified documents revealing numerous global surveillance operations by the National Security Agency. The Snowden case showed some excesses that were taking place overseas regarding U.S. intelligence agencies and reforms have since been set up, Obama said.

“We’re concerned about privacy,” Obama said. “We don’t want government to be looking through everyone’s phones willy-nilly without any kind of oversight or probable cause or a clear sense that it’s targeted at somebody who might be a wrong doer.”

What makes the situation even more complicated is that the U.S. wants really strong encryption to prevent people from disrupting the financial system, air traffic control system and a whole lot of other systems that are increasingly digitized, Obama said.

“And the question we now have to ask is if technologically it is possible to make an impenetrable device or system where the encryption is so strong that there is no key, there’s no door at all then how do we apprehend the child pornographer, how do we solve or disrupt a terrorist plot?” Obama said. “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’s walking around with a Swiss bank account in their pocket.”

There has to be some concession to be able to get into that information somehow, Obama said.
But some people on the encryption side fear that a key to unlock an iPhone or smartphone could then be used to on every device. That might be technically true, Obama said. But he thinks it can be overstated.

That means society needs to decide how to balance these respective risks, Obama said. He already has a task force of smart people tackling the problem. They have also engaged the tech community aggressively.

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

The answer is going to come down to creating a system where “the encryption is as strong as possible, the key is as secure as possible and it is accessible by the smallest number of people possible for a subset of issues that we agree are important,” Obama said.

Obama emphasized he’s on “the civil liberties side of this thing.”

“But the dangers are real. Maintaining law and order in a civilized society is important, protecting our kids is important,” Obama said. “So I would just caution against taking an absolutist perspective on this.”

U.S. citizens make concessions all the time for safety. Travelers agree to searches at the airport. Communities have stops to check for drunk drivers.

“It’s an intrusion but we think it’s the right thing to do,” Obama said. “And this notion that somehow our data is different and can be walled off from those other tradeoffs we make I believe is incorrect.”

The U.S. government needs the help of the tech community to solve this problem, Obama said. He encouraged the audience to get involved in finding a solution.

Because if nothing is done now, when something really bad happens “the politics of this thing will swing and it will become sloppy and rushed and it will go through Congress in ways that have not been thought through,” Obama said.

And then the civil liberties of U.S. citizens really will be affected, he said.