President Barack Obama advised against adopting “absolutist” views about privacy and security when it comes to technology, addressing a crowd at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival (SXSW) on Friday amid the ongoing Apple-FBI encryption battle.
“My conclusion so far is that you cannot take an absolutist view on this,” he said. “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, it is accessible by the smallest number of people possible for a subset of issues that we agree are important?”
His comments to the tech community at the festival come as Apple challenges a court order obtained by FBI investigators who say they need the company’s help in unlocking the encrypted iPhone of one of the San Bernardino shooters. Apple has said unlocking the phone would set a dangerous precedent, and many in the tech community have sided with the company.
While declining to comment on the specific Apple case due to ongoing legal action, Obama said the country must seek to balance the rights and risks associated with privacy, security and technology. He said Americans make other concessions of privacy or convenience in the interest of security, including TSA screenings before flights and stops to screen for drunken drivers on the road.
“This notion that somehow our data is different and can be walled off from those other tradeoffs we make I believe is incorrect,” he said.
Obama said strong encryption is important for preventing terrorist attacks and stopping people from hacking and disrupting financial or air traffic control systems, which are increasingly digital. But he said even if devices are impenetrable because of encryption, there still needs to be a way to catch child pornographers or terrorists.
“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,” he said.
However, the President cautioned that oversight over government surveillance was also important.
“We don’t want government to be looking through everybody’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,” Obama added.
[Read his full remarks, as reported by the Boston Globe.]
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Write to Katie Reilly at Katie.Reilly@time.com