Obama warns against 'absolutist' positions on encryption

President Obama at SXSW in Austin, Texas, March 11, 2016. Photo from WH.GOV video stream.

President Barack Obama spoke March 11 at the South by Southwest Interactive festival in Austin, Texas.

Privacy advocates and security hawks should avoid "absolutist" positions in the ongoing debate over law enforcement access to encrypted communications, President Obama said March 11.

It would be disastrous for policymaking "if everybody goes to their respective corners and the tech community says…either we have strong, perfect encryption or else it's Big Brother and an Orwellian world," Obama said at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas.

If privacy advocates stake out that uncompromising position, he said, and "something really bad happens, the politics of this will swing…and it will go through Congress in ways that have not been thought through, and then you really will have the dangers to our civil liberties…"

Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, have drawn up legislation to allow law enforcement access to encrypted communications.

But it is unclear if the White House will back such a bill.  "I continue to be personally skeptical, more broadly … of Congress' ability to handle such a complicated policy area, given [their] recent inability to handle simple things," White House Press Secretary Joshua Earnest told reporters before Obama's SXSW appearance.

Obama steered clear of specifics around the legal battle between Apple and the FBI over unlocking the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino, Calif., shooters. Nonetheless, his lengthy comments on the broader issue of encryption and national security will further fuel a contentious ongoing debate on the subject.

Many cryptographers have pointed out that weakening encryption for law enforcement access could have deleterious effects on Internet security. While agreeing that strong encryption is important, Obama argued that the government must have some means of accessing encrypted data to, for example, disrupt a terrorist plot.

While warning against "fetishizing our phones above every other value," the president argued that U.S. society allows for tradeoffs in privacy and security. "This notion that somehow our data is different and can be walled off from those other tradeoffs we make, I believe is incorrect," he said.

Obama also touched on the revelations of National Security Agency surveillance from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, saying the Snowden revelations had the effect of "vastly [overstating] the dangers to U.S. citizens in terms of spying."

While the Snowden documents revealed "excesses" overseas by U.S. intelligence agencies, "a lot of those have been fixed," Obama said.

Digital legacy

The president also used his time at SXSW to tout the U.S. Digital Service, which grew out of the team of technologists credited with helping fix the dysfunctional website.  Obama said he wants to "institutionalize" the idea of having such expert techies to tackle administrative challenges so that the concept is not lost on the next administration.

In his final year in office, Obama has made a series of moves to burnish his tech legacy. His fiscal 2017 budget request called for a 35 percent increase in cybersecurity spending, for a total of $19 billion. The White House has also proposed a $3.1 billion revolving Information Technology Modernization fund for agencies to upgrade legacy IT.

About the Author

Sean Lyngaas is a former FCW staff writer.


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