United States President Barack Obama today spoke with Texas Tribune editor Evan Smith at South by Southwest (SXSW), where he indirectly addressed Apple’s dispute with the FBI. While Obama said he could not comment specifically on the ongoing encryption battle between the two, he spoke on larger issues of privacy and security.
Obama cautioned against taking an “absolutist” view on encryption and said American citizens already make concessions to balance privacy with security in other aspects of their lives. He used warrants to search homes and possessions, something the public agrees is necessary, as a parallel to accessing data on a smartphone.
He also pointed towards airport security as an example of a compromise made between security and privacy. “It’s not fun going through security,” he said, “but we recognize it as important.” He went on to say that the notion that data can be “walled off” from those “other tradeoffs we make” is incorrect.
The question we 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 solve or disrupt a terrorist plot? What mechanisms do we have available to even do simple things like tax enforcement if in fact you cant crack that at all. If the government can’t get in, everyone is walking around with a swiss bank account in their pocket.
There has to be some concession to the need to get that information somehow. Folks who are on the encryption side will argue that any key whatsoever, even if it starts off directed at one device, could end up being used on every device. That’s just the nature of these systems. That is a technical question. I am not a software engineer. It is technically true, but it can be overstated.
Obama said that while he wants to make sure the government cannot “willy-nilly” get into everyone’s iPhones without oversight and probable cause, there are “constraints we impose” to make sure we live in a safe and civilized society. He advocated for finding a balance between encryption and privacy and the government’s need to investigate crimes.
My conclusion so far is that you cannot take an absolutist view on this. 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 that we have lived with for 200, 300 years and it is fetishizing our phones above every other value. That can’t be the right answer.
I suspect that the answer is going to come down to how do we create a system where the encryption is as strong as possible, the key is as secure as possible, is accessible by the smallest number of people possible for a subset of issues that we agree are important.
Obama went on to call on software engineers and technology companies to help the government solve the problem, and he said a thorough, well-formed encryption solution should be established before it’s desperately needed. He cautioned against the tech community disengaging or taking a position that “is not sustainable for the general public as a whole over time,” as it could lead to a stalemate that will ultimately lead to “sloppy” legislation should the political climate change after something “really bad happens.” Apple, too, has urged for the issue to be solved in Congress instead of the courts.
The president’s comments come as Apple is facing off against the U.S. government in a fierce public battle over the order that would require Apple to help the FBI break into the iPhone used by San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook by creating new software to circumvent passcode restrictions on the device. Apple believes complying with the demand would set a dangerous precedent that could lead to the overall weakening of encryption on smartphones and other electronic devices.
The Department of Justice has dismissed Apple’s concerns, calling its fears overblown and insisting the request will not result in a universal “master key.” Just yesterday, a government filing accused Apple of “deliberately” raising technological barriers preventing law enforcement from accessing data on Apple devices, something Apple lawyer Bruce Sewell went on to call an “unsupported, unsubstantiated effort to vilify Apple.”
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