President Obama Argues for the Need to Concede Privacy at SXSW Keynote

U.S. President Barack Obama participates in an onstage interview at the South by Southwest Interactive in Austin, Texas, on March 11, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

The 30th edition of South by Southwest commenced Friday in Austin, Texas, and to celebrate three decades of existence, the renowned music, film, tech and ideas conference introduced its highest-profile speaker ever: the president of the United States. Inside Dell Hall at the Long Center for Performing Arts, Barack Obama sat down with Texas Tribune editor-in-chief Evan Smith to discuss civic engagement within the tech community. Silicon Valley, of course, has traditionally has been at odds with the government, the most recent example being Apple's legal dispute with the FBI.

Obama isn't the most tech-savvy individual—he kept saying "early adapter" instead of "early adopter"—and the most noteworthy tech issue of his time in office is probably the failure of the Affordable Care Act's website, which Obama says helped inspired the bourgeoning U.S. Digital Service (USDS). During a conference call with the press on Thursday, service director Haley Van Dyck described the USDS as "a network of startups organized across government to help bring about radical change." The service's website describes itself as aiming to transform "how the federal government works for the American people."

Obama can't be faulted for not knowing the ins and outs of how encryptions works, but this is partly why it has been difficult for him to forge a bond with the tech community. His message on Friday was vague and idealistic, calling for civic engagement and stressing that the government is not the enemy. He spoke of how tech can increase voter turnout, improve education and help take down violent extremism. ISIS has a vast online network, and Obama noted that, for several reasons, the government cannot take the lead when it comes to preventing the group from getting through to young people.

"You figure out how we can reach young people who might be vulnerable to extremist messages," he said, speaking to the tech community. "You tell us—based on the analytics and the data and the algorithms that you're working with on a daily basis to sell products—what is it that's really going to penetrate? How can we amplify powerful stories that are already taking place so that they're on platforms that can reach as many people as possible?"

What hovered over the proceedings, however, was the ongoing dispute between Apple and the FBI, a glaring example of the discord between the tech industry and the government. The issue didn't come up in his interview with Smith, but when it came time for Obama to answer questions submitted by Texas Tribune readers, the case was the first issue the site's editor-in-chief asked him to address, broadening the question to where he stands on the idea of "balancing the need for law enforcement to conduct investigations and the needs of the citizens to protect their privacy."

Obama responded by pointing out that we have always conceded our privacy in small ways to ensure that the government can do it's job, noting that law enforcement can tear apart someone's house searching for evidence if they were suspected of child abduction or a terrorist plot. We concede to have our bags searched at the airport for good reason, we concede to drunk driving checkpoints for good reason, and these concessions need to extend into our digital worlds as well.

"Part of us preventing terrorism, or preventing people from disrupting the financial system, or the air traffic control system, or a whole other set of systems that are increasingly digitized, is that hackers, state or non-state, can't just get in there and mess them up," Obama said. "We have two values, both of which are important, and the question we now have to ask is if it is technologically possible to make an impenetrable device or system where the encryption is so strong that there is no key, that there is no door at all, then how do we apprehend the child pornographer? How do we disrupt a terrorist plot? What mechanisms do we have available? Even with simple things like tax enforcement—if in fact you can't crack that at all, if the government can't get in, then everybody's walking around with a Swiss bank account in their pocket."

He continued, "My conclusion so far is you cannot take an absolutist view on this. If your argument is strong encryption no matter what, that we can and should create black boxes, that I think does not strike the kind of balance that we have lived with for 200, 300 years. It is fetishizing our phones above every other value. That can't be the right answer."

The right answer, Obama says, is to create a system of encryption that is as strong as possible while still being accessible to the smallest number of people necessary to ensure the country is kept safe. This is easier said than done, especially given that the rift between the tech industry and the government only appears to be growing wider and wider as tech companies grow in influence. How to achieve this, Obama does not know. He is not a software engineer, as he mentioned earlier in the interview. He came to SXSW to try to reach out to the innovators and call on them to actively consider these issues. But not only did he reach out, he cautioned as to what could happen if that gap is not bridged.

"I'm confident this is something that we can solve, but we're in need of the tech community, software designers, people who care deeply about this stuff to help us solve it," he said. "Because what will happen if everybody goes to their respective corners and the tech community says, 'You know what? Either we have strong, perfect encryption or else it's [a] big brother, 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 in terms of civil liberties, because the people who understand this best and 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 over time."

It might not come to that, but the prospect of real collaboration between the private tech sector and the government looks bleak. Obama can reach out all he wants, but the current reality of Silicon Valley's relationships with the government is Apple's dispute with the FBI, which is only driving an even bigger wedge between government and tech. It's going to take a lot more than an SXSW keynote to bring them closer.