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Obama on encryption debate: ‘There has to be some concession’ from tech companies

Alyssa Bereznak
·National Correspondent, Technology
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During President Obama’s keynote event at the South by Southwest tech conference, the Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith brought up the ongoing fight between Apple and the FBI over access to a San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone.

“Putting aside the specifics of this case, there are big questions around the idea of how you balance the need of law enforcement to conduct investigations, and the need of citizens to protect their privacy,” Smith said. “Mr. President, where do you come down on the privacy versus security debate?”

Obama offered a long and careful reply, indicating that he is hopeful that tech companies and law enforcement can find common ground on the issue.

Related: At SXSW, Obama calls on tech industry to solve ‘big problems’

“The question now becomes how we as a society — setting aside this specific case between the FBI and Apple, setting aside the commercial interests, the concerns about what the Chinese government could do with this — we’re going to make some decisions about how we balance these prospective risks,” he said. “I’ve got a bunch of smart people sitting here talking about it, thinking about it. We have engaged the tech community aggressively to help solve this problem.”

Obama said he felt it was wrong to take an “absolutist perspective,” and proposed a form of encryption in which a few organizations can access the key for systems in certain agreed-upon scenarios.

“If your argument is strong encryption no matter what and that we can and should, in fact, create black boxes, that I think does not strike the kind of balance we’ve lived with for 200, 300 years,” he said. “It’s fetishizing our phones above every other value. And that can’t be an answer. I suspect 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.”

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The Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith and President Obama at SXSW in Austin, Texas, Mar.11, 2016. (Photo: Larry W. Smith/EPA).

However, Obama did admit that he was not an expert in the area of cryptography, saying “how we design that is not something that I have the expertise to do.”

Apple and the many privacy activists and experts who have backed the company in its ongoing legal battle against the FBI, argue that any compromise to encryption could lead to a “slippery slope,” dismantling the intricate security systems the tech industry has worked hard to create.

Related: Apple v. the FBI: Examining the slippery slope argument

After the event, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-CA.—who questioned the motives of FBI Director James Comey during a House Judiciary Committee hearing last week—released a statement criticizing Obama’s viewpoint.

“The President’s speech today showed a fundamental lack of understanding of the tech community, the complexities of encryption, and the importance of privacy to our safety in an increasingly digital world,” it read. “There’s just no way to create a special key for government that couldn’t also be taken advantage of by the Russians, the Chinese, or others who want access to the sensitive information we all carry in our pockets everyday.”

The FBI, which just yesterday called Apple’s rhetoric “corrosive of the very institutions that are best able to safeguard our liberty and our rights,“ disagrees. The two organizations will face off in court on March 22nd.