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Obama Asks Tech Industry to Compromise on Encryption

To protect national security and civil liberties, President Obama asked for technologist’s help to find a middle ground on the encryption debate.

by / March 11, 2016
President Obama said the issue of privacy and national security is one of his constant concerns and he hopes both needs can be met through compromise. SxSW

In response to the national controversy over government access to encrypted files, President Obama on Friday urged the tech industry to partner with national security officials to find a balance between backdoor access and total encryption.

In his remarks, delivered at the Austin, Texas, arts and tech event South by Southwest (SxSW), the president said concessions on both sides are required to protect the nation against terrorist attacks and to sustainably safeguard American’s civil liberties.

“My conclusion so far is that you cannot take an absolutist view on this,” Obama said, adding that he was speaking generally on the issue and not specifically about the FBI’s legal battle with Apple, in which the bureau has been working to compel the tech giant to hack the iPhone of San Bernardino, Calif., terrorist Syed Farook.

Obama argued that in a world where complete encryption is a reality, a middle path had to be found to prevent deadly terrorist attacks and stop criminals. Not doing so, he contended, could prompt knee-jerk reactions from legislators. The president also said he worried that in the event of a major terrorist attack, Congress, seeing no other recourse, might feel compelled to enact hasty legislation that might damage civil liberties for years to come.

“What you’ll find is after something really bad happens, the politics of this will swing and we’ll become sloppy, and rushed, and it will go through congress in ways that have not been thought through,” Obama said. “And then you really will have a danger to our civil liberties because the people who understand this best, and who care most about privacy and our civil liberties, have disengaged.”

He said the country has made measured privacy concessions for safety since its beginnings. He pointed to police search warrants of homes as one example, drunk driving inspections and the Transportation Security Administration’s airport screening process as examples. The president conjectured that in the age of advanced technology — without tools to access citizen data — it would likely prove difficult, and perhaps even impossible, to do simple government duties like collecting taxes.

“To this day, if there is probable cause to think you have abducted a child, or that you are engaging in a terrorist plot, or engaging in a serious crime, law enforcement can appear before your door and say, 'We have a warrant to search your home...'” Obama said. “This notion that somehow our data is different — and can be walled off from those other trade-offs we make — I believe is incorrect.”

Obama also said that he believed the eventual solution to this issue would likely emerge as a middle path that allowed a level of encryption that was “as strong as possible” with data “accessible by the smallest number of people possible.”

In his comments, which focused on engaging the tech community on a number of fronts, the president asked technologists for help on a variety of issues from generating higher voter turnouts to continued support halting online extremism. He also highlighted White House tech programs like his Precision Medicine Initiative to develop medicines tailored to patient genes and the ongoing recruitment for the U.S. Digital Service, his Silicon Valley “S.W.A.T team” to improve agency IT projects. A video highlighting a few these initiatives can be viewed below.

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Jason Shueh former staff writer

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.

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