What Obama said about encryption and tech’s double-edged sword at SXSW


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“[Technology can] empower individuals to do things they could have never dreamed of before, but also empower folks who are very dangerous to spread dangerous messages” President Barack Obama said today.

Obama took the stage at South By Southwest to discuss how technology could be used to enhance civic engagement. But the end of his talked ended up focusing on the balance between privacy and security surrounding encryption and the Apple-FBI case. He noted that the government shouldn’t be able to get into people’s phones “willy-nilly” but that there will need to be “constraints imposed” on privacy to keep people safe.

How Tech Can Improve America

He sat down with Evan Smith, CEO and Editor in Chief of The Texas Tribune after grabbing lunch at Torchy’s Tacos.

US President Barack Obama orders during a stop at Torchy's Tacos on March 11, 2016 in Austin, Texas. MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
US President Barack Obama orders during a stop at Torchy’s Tacos on March 11, 2016 in Austin, Texas. Photo: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Obama opened his talk by outlining three ways that tech can improve  our country:

  1. “We can make government work better through technology” – Obama discussed how the government has used tech to cut the time it takes to apply for FAFSA student aid by two-thirds and make it possible to apply for social security online.
  2. “Tackle big problems in new ways” – The President said he convened a conference in Washington about precision medicine, and said we have enormous opportunities to use tech to cure disease and solve other big issues. He noted, though, that we have to not only do the research but use technology to gather that data together so it can be leveraged.
  3. “Make sure we’re using big data, analytics, and technology to make civic participation easier” – Obama spent time talking about demonstrating the positive impact of increasing voting rates through tech.

Obama explained that “The reason I’m here is to recruit you all..The most important office in a democracy is the office of citizens”. He went on to establish a theme of his talk that by activating tech talent and bringing them inside the government to fix its software, real progress can be made. For example, engineers from Google and Facebook have already done stints trying to straighten out the messy, inefficient government systems.

“You don’t have to do it full time. You don’t have to run for office yourself. But whatever your field is there is a way for you to engage and participate to take this democracy back in ways we haven’t seen in a very long time” Obama urged.

US President Barack Obama speaks during a South by Southwest Interactive with Texas Tribune editor Evan Smith (L) at the Long Center for Performing Arts in Austin, Texas on March 11, 2016. / AFP / MANDEL NGAN
US President Barack Obama speaks during a South by Southwest Interactive with Texas Tribune editor Evan Smith (L) at the Long Center for Performing Arts in Austin, Texas on March 11, 2016. Photo: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Fighting the war for the hearts and minds of potential terrorist recruits was one way Obama said the tech sector could assist the government. “Figure out how we can reach young people who might be vulnerable to extremist messages” he asked. “Tell us, based on data and algorithms you’re working with on a daily basis to sell products, what is it that’s going to penetrate here?”

Back at home, the President said making voting more accessible is critical. “We’re the only advanced democracy in the world that makes it harder for people to vote. I hear laughing but it’s sad” he explained. When asked what’s preventing online voting in Texas, Obama said it’s not because it’s insecure, but “it’s because the people who are governing the good state of Texas aren’t interested in having more people voting.”

Obama briefly lightened the mood by repurposing a popular meme that mentions him. The phrase “Thanks, Obama” is typically used on the Internet to jokingly blame the President for mundane, day-to-day problems he has nothing to do with, like spilling soup on yourself. But instead, when talking about how despite opposition from republicans, he’s cut the unemployment rate, he said with a smile “Thanks, Obama” to thunderous applause.

Privacy With Constraints

The day’s last question was about “How you balance the need for law enforcement to conduct investigations with citizens to protect their privacy”.

Obama noted he was unable to directly address the on-going legal battle in which the FBI is trying to compel Apple to help it access the encrypted iPhone of the San Bernardino shooter to gain evidence. However, he gave a lengthy treatise on how the balance should be struck.

You can read his full remarks in our separate article here, but the most important quotes were:

“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 imposed to ensure we are safe”.

“I am of the view that there are very real reasons why we want to make sure the government can not just wily-nilly get into everyone’s iPhones or smartphones that are full of very personal information or very personal data.”

US President Barack Obama (R) speaks during a South by Southwest Interactive at the Long Center for Performing Arts in Austin, Texas on March 11, 2016. / AFP / Mandel Ngan
US President Barack Obama (R) speaks during a South by Southwest Interactive at the Long Center for Performing Arts in Austin, Texas on March 11, 2016. / AFP / Mandel Ngan

“We also want really strong encryption… [though] there has to be some some concession to the need to be able to get to that information somehow.”

“I suspect the answer will come down to how can we make sure the encryption is as strong as possible, the key is as strong as possible, it’s accessible by the smallest number of people possible, for a subset of issues that we agree are important.”

Essentially, Obama does believe that law enforcement and government should have ways to access encrypted data when absolutely necessary, but that that should be done in a way to minimize risk of a backdoor falling into the wrong hands.

US President Barack Obama waves as he and Texas Tribune editor Evan Smith (L) arrive for a South by Southwest Interactive at the Long Center for Performing Arts in Austin, Texas on March 11, 2016. / AFP / MANDEL NGAN
US President Barack Obama waves as he and Texas Tribune editor Evan Smith (L) arrive for a South by Southwest Interactive at the Long Center for Performing Arts in Austin, Texas on March 11, 2016. / AFP / MANDEL NGAN

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