During a South by Southwest 2016 event earlier today, President Obama sat down with Evan Smith, editor-in-chief of The Texas Tribune, to discuss a great number of issues. The interview ended on a note dedicated to the encryption issue that surrounds the FBI v. Apple case now in progress. Although President Obama didn't want to get into the specifics of the case, he did in fact reveal the very hard-line that Apple has taken on this issue without naming them specifically. His description of Apple's position is one that I've never heard before and it was in fact a blockbuster view that shows us just how far apart the two sides really are on this issue. Below is the video of the interview. You could review the segment on encryption starting at the 1:24 mark and/or read 95% of President Obama's views on encryption in Patently Apple's transcript that is presented below for your convenience.
Update: Advance the video to the 1:24 mark, as the beginning of the video gives you the impression the event is over and the video feed is dead. It isn't, just advance the video accordingly. .
President Obama's Views on the Issue of iPhone / Smartphone Encryption
"All of us, value our privacy and this is a society that is built on a constitution and a Bill of Rights and a healthy skepticism about overreaching government power. Before smartphones were in vented, and to this day, if there's probable cause to think that you have abducted a child, or that you are engaging in a terrorist plot, or you are guilty of some serious crime – law enforcement can appear at your doorstep and say 'we have a warrant' and go into your bedroom doors and rifle through your underwear to see if there's any evidence of wrongdoing. And we agree on that because we recognize that just like all of our other rights, freedom of speech, freedom of religion etc, that there are going to be some constraints that we impose in order to make sure that we are safe, secure and living in a civilized society."
"Now technology is evolving so rapidly, that new questions are being asked, and I am of the view that there are very real reasons why we want to make sure that government cannot just willy-nilly get into everybody's iPhone's or smartphones that are full of very personal information and very personal data. And let's face it, the whole Snowden disclosure / episode, elevated people's suspicions of this.
So does popular culture, by the way, that makes it appear as if I'm in the sit (situation) room and moving things around with half a fingerprint and tracking the guy … (to a round of laughter) in the streets of Istanbul. It turns out that it doesn't work that way," Obama said jokingly.
Joking aside, the President noted that "the Snowden issue vastly overstated the dangers to U.S. citizens in terms of spying because the fact of the matter is, that actually, our intelligence agencies are pretty scrupulous about U.S. persons, on U.S. soil. What those disclosures did identify were excesses overseas with respect to people who are not in this country."
"A lot of those have now been fixed, don't take my word for it, there was an independent panel just graded all the reforms that we setup to avoid those charges. But I understand that that raised suspicions and so we're concerned about privacy, we don't want government to be looking through everyone's phones, willy-nilly, without any oversight or probable cause or a clear sense that it's targeted at somebody who might be a wrongdoer."
"What makes it more complicated is the fact that we also want really strong encryption … because part of us preventing terrorism or preventing people from disrupting the financial system or our air traffic control system or a whole other set of systems that are increasingly digitalized is that hackers, state or non-state can just get in there and mess them up.
So we have two values both of which are important. And the question that we now have to ask is if technologically it is possible to make an impenetrable device or system where the encryption is so strong that there's no key or no door at all," Obama pondered, "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. Because if in fact you can't crack that at all, government can't get in, then, everyone is walking around where a Swiss Bank account in their pocket. So there has to be some concession to be able to get into that information somehow.
Now folks who are on the encryption side will argument is that any key whatsoever, even if it starts off as just being 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'm not a software engineer. I think it's technically true but I think it can be overstated. So the question now becomes, we as a society, setting aside the specific case between the [case of] the FBI and Apple, setting aside the commercial interests, concerns about what could the Chinese government can do with this even if we trust the U.S. government, setting aside all of those questions, we're going to have to make some decisions about how do we balance these respective risks. I've got a bunch of smart people sitting together talking it, thinking about it, we have engaged the tech community aggressively, to help solve this problem.
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 its fetishizing our phones above every other value and that can't be the right answer."
Without a doubt Cook is the focus of that last block of thought by the president, as we reported on the basics of this back on January 13 in a report titled "Apple's CEO Rebukes Washington's need for 'Balance' between National Security and Consumer Privacy."
The President Continued: "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 pool of people possible, for a subset of issues that we agree are important. How we design that is not something that I have the expertise to do but I caution ….. taking an absolutist perspective on this, because we make compromises all the time.
In closing, the President stated that "We do have to make sure, given the power of internet and how much our lives are digitalized that it is narrow and it is constrained and that there's oversight. I'm confident this is something we can solve but we're going to need the tech community, software designers, people who care deeply about this stuff to help us solve it because what will happen is, if everyone goes into their respective corners, and the tech community says, you know what, either we have strong perfect encryption or else it's big brother or an Orwellian world, what you'll find is that after something really bad happens, the politics of this will swing and it will become sloppy, and rushed and it will go through Congress in ways that have not been thought through and then you really will have a danger to our civil liberties. The people who understand this best and who care most about privacy and civil liberties have sort of disengaged or have taken a position that is not sustainable for the general public as a whole over time."