At the SxSW conference today in Austin, President Obama addressed the encryption debate in a lengthy question and answer session. (Actually, there was only one question.) He was relaxed, measured, and specific. The reactions in the crowd were mostly positive, with a few hand claps here and there and a few cheers but not much outcry from a crowd that likely sides with Apple.
Not surprisingly, he came down on the side of government having the means to catch criminals and investigate cases. He made it clear that the debate will be on-going.
He would not comment on the Apple case, but he did comment on Edward Snowden, the expectations for privacy in the U.S., and where government has made mistakes. It was a good discussion and a healthy debate. (It was also marked by a few funny comments, including the moment he extended his own session. "I'm the President, so I'm going to take one more minute.")
Here are a few takeaways:
1. Intrusions will become more common
One of my main realizations from his comments: That we will likely have to accept more intrusions. He mentioned how the TSA at an airport is an example of what we will need to accept as a society. I'm not sure what will come next, but he made a comment about how the government does have the right to "rifle through your underwear" in an investigation. Unfortunately I envision a day when a fully encrypted smartphone is only legal if there is a backdoor, and that the Apple case--once it reaches the Supreme Court--will make this inevitable. I'm hoping the tech community reaches an acceptable conclusion before that happens.
2. There is no perfect black box
I agree with President Obama that there is no perfect black box. We have to accept some compromises, and his example of a child abduction case giving authorities the right to search your home make sense. It's possible Apple has created a black box that is too perfect. The latest rebuttals from the government seem to suggest that Apple needs to provide more help, but most of the security experts who have shared their views with me say that's a slippery slope.
3. Encryption has to be narrow and controlled
President Obama made it clear that encryption has to be narrow. What he means is that the FBI has the right to break one iPhone and that it doesn't necessarily mean that this will lead to a total breakdown in government trust, rampant compromise on encryption software, and foreign governments finally getting access to the amazing security we've created. I agree with him that encryption should be narrow, and he admitted he is not a software engineer. But I really want to hear more from high-ranking officials about what to do about this topic.
4. Absolutes don't help
His final comment was to assert that it doesn't help to take absolute positions. What seems to be happening is that the government is talking about safety and Apple is talking about privacy and security. There has to be a middle ground, because the problem with this debate is that both sides are right. We have to protect ourselves from another attack. We have to maintain privacy. President Obama was measured, and his approach is one of unification. He admitted there are no easy answers, and there are no black and white answers. Now, we just need some answers.