Obama on encryption: 'It's fetishizing our phones above every other value'

At South by Southwest Interactive, President Obama warned that taking an "absolutist stance" on privacy vs. encryption isn't the right answer.

President Barack Obama can’t comment on the specifics of the ongoing feud between Apple and the FBI, but he did sit down with Texas Tribune editor-in-chief Evan Smith at South by Southwest Interactive on Friday to weigh in on one of the most pressing issues facing American society today: Is national security more important than privacy in the digital age?

“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 there’s no key, there’s no door at all, then how do we apprehend the child pornographer? How do we disrupt a terrorist plot?” Obama said. “If you can’t crack that [device] at all, if government can’t get in, everybody’s walking around with a Swiss bank account in their pocket.”

Obama is the first sitting president to take the stage at South by Southwest, the annual converge of tech, music, and film in Austin, Texas. He appeared at the festival to urge tech companies, engineers, and the creative thinkers drawn to SXSW to work on innovative solutions plaguing American democracy, like making it easier to vote, and bringing Internet access to more people.

Those are important issues, of course, but with the Department of Justice pressing Apple to help unlock an iPhone 5c used in the San Bernardino terrorist plot, Obama’s feel-good message on civic engagement took a backseat to who he sides with, Apple or FBI. He wouldn’t say, of course, but said he came down on the side of civil liberties, with a caveat.

obama sxsw

“I suspect the answer will come down to how we create a system where the encryption is as strong as possible, the key is as secure as possible, it’s accessible by the smallest number of people possible for the subset of issues that we agree is important.”

The Edward Snowden effect

Obama realizes that Edward Snowden’s NSA surveillance leaks have made the American people skeptical about the government’s intentions when it comes to our devices.

“There are very real reasons why we want to make sure the government cannot just willy-nilly go into everyone’s iPhones—smartphones—that are full of personal data,” he said. “The whole Snowden disclosure episode elevated people’s suspicions of this.”

Snowden himself appeared at SXSW in 2014 to urge the American people to embrace encryption, which makes it difficult if not impossible for the National Security Agency to monitor communications.

Obama said, “The Snowden issue vastly overstated the dangers to U.S. citizens in terms of spying,” but also said encryption is essential to keep hackers from destroying digital systems like banks or air traffic control.

“We’re going to have to make some decisions about how we balance those respective risks,” he said. “We’ve engaged the tech community aggressively to help solve this problem. You can’t take an absolutist stance on this. It’s fetishizing our phones above every other value, and that can’t be the right answer.”

Meanwhile, Apple faces off with the FBI in court on March 22 for the first hearing in the case. The Department of Justice filed a response on Thursday to Apple’s argument againt complying with the court order and basically slammed the company for its “corrosive” rhetoric. Expect this fight to stay heated.