12 March 2016
Obama on Encryption at SXSW, 11 March 2016
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 invented and to this day, if there
is 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 to search
your home and can go into your bedroom and into your bedroom drawers to rifle
through your underwear to see if theres 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 imposed to ensure we are safe, secure and living in
a civilized society.
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
the government can not just wily-nilly get into everyones iPhones or
smartphones that are full of very personal information or very personal data.
What makes it even more complicated is 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 digitized, is that hackers, state or non-state,
cant get in there and mess around.
So we have two values, both of which are important.
And the question 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 is no key there, theres no door at all? And how do we apprehend
the child pornographer? How do we solve or disrupt a terrorist plot? What
mechanisms do we have available that even do simple things like tax enforcement?
Because if you cant crack that at all, and government cant get
in, then everybodys walking around with a Swiss bank account in their
pocket. So there has to be some some concession to the need to be able to
get to that information somehow.
Now what folks who are on the encryption side will argue is any key whatsoever,
even if it starts off as just being directed at one device, could end up
being used on any device. Thats just the nature of these systems.That
is a technical question. I am not a software engineer. It is, I think,
technically true, but i think it it can be overstated.
So the question now becomes, we as a society, setting aside the specific
case between the FBI and Apple, setting aside the commercial interests, the
concerns about what the Chinese government could do with this even if we
trust the US government, setting aside all these questions, were going
to have to make some decisions about how we balance these respective risks.
Ive got a bunch of smart people sitting there talking about it, thinking
about it. We have engaged the tech community aggressively to help solve this
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 cant
and shouldnt make black boxes, that I do not think strikes the balances
weve struck for 200 or 300 years and its fetishizing our phones
above every other value. And that cant be the right answer. I suspect
the answer will come down to how can we make sure the encryption is as strong
as possible, the key as strong as possible, its accessible by the smallest
number of people possible, for a subset of issues that we agree are important.
How we design that is not something I have the expertise to do.
I am way on the civil liberties side of this thing
I anguish a lot over
the decisions we make in terms of how we keep this country safe, and I am
not interested in overdrawing the values that have made us an exceptional
and great nation simply for expediency. But the dangers are real. Maintaining
law and order in a civilized society is important. Protecting our kids is
important. And so I would just caution against an absolutist perspective
Because we make compromises all the time. You know, I havent flown
commercial in a while. But my understanding is that its not great fun
going through security. But we make the concession. Its a big intrusion
on our privacy, but we recognize it as important. We have stops for drunk
drivers. Its an intrusion but we think its the right thing to
And this notion that somehow our data is different and can be walled off
from those other trade-offs we make, I believe is incorrect. We do have to
make sure, given the power of the Internet and how much our lives are digitized,
that it is narrow, and is constrained, and that theres oversight. Im
confident that this is something that we can solve.
But were going to need the tech community, the software designers,
the people who care deeply about this stuff to help us solve it. Because
what will happen is if everyone goes to their respective corners and the
tech community says Either we have strong, perfect encryption or else
its Big Brother and an Orwellian world, what youll find
is that after something really bad happens, the politics of this will swing,
and they 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
dangers to our civil liberties because the people who understand this best,
who care most about privacy and civil liberties, will have disengaged or
taken a position that is not sustainable for the general public as a whole