Speaking at the South By Southwest (SXSW) conference, President Barack Obama said that allowing Americans to have impenetrable encryption on their smartphones could impede the government’s ability to go after criminals and even tax evaders.
“If technologically it is possible to make an impenetrable device or system, where the encryption is so strong there is no key or no door, then how do we apprehend the child pornographer?” Obama said during his inaugural speech at the conference in Austin, Texas on Friday.
Even when it comes to tax evasion and the IRS’s ability to conduct audits, the president said that “if the government can’t get in, then everyone is walking around with a Swiss bank account in their pocket.”
Obama’s comments came in response to a question about the government’s ongoing case with Apple. The president said he couldn’t comment on the FBI’s case, which was brought against the company after Apple refused to bypass the security protections on an iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino shooters. But he repeatedly stressed that in the debate over privacy and national security, there is no room for rigid ideologies.
“You cannot take an absolutist view on this,” he said. “Either we have strong perfect encryption or it’s Big Brother.”
Obama emphasized the need to strike a balance so that both the government and private companies use the strongest possible encryption, with secure keys, and with as few people knowing how to crack it as possible. Otherwise, society would be “fetishizing our phones above every other value.”
“All of us value our privacy, and this is a society that is built on a Constitution and a Bill of Rights and a skepticism of government intrusion,” the president said. “Technology is evolving so rapidly, new questions are being asked. There are really real reasons that government shouldn’t be able to rifle through everybody’s phone willy nilly.”
Obama emphasized that compromises to privacy may be necessary when the threat of security is bigger, citing airport security practices as an example.
“We make the concession because we recognize its important,” he said. “We do have to make sure that given the power of the internet that it is [probable cause] and that there is constraint. But we’re going to need the tech community to help us solve it.”
Obama’s comments follow weeks of intense public debate over Apple’s refusal to comply with an FBI court order, requiring the company to create a digital tool that would allow the agency to crack the San Bernardino shooter’s passcode through brute force. The phone is currently set up so that 10 incorrect passcode entries would wipe all data from the device.
The FBI maintains its order is legally justified under the All Writs Act (AWA), an 18th century law that permits the government to lean on third parties to help execute warrants. A New York federal judge rejected that defense in a similar FBI request, saying there were no laws requiring Apple to create a digital tool to assist in a law enforcement investigation.
In his decision, Judge Judge James Orenstein of the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of New York wrote, “The relief the government seeks is unavailable because Congress has considered legislation that would achieve the same result but has not adopted it.”