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Obama urges techies to compromise on encryption

President Barack Obama stopped by South By Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas today to talk about, among other things, encryption. The crux of his argument: techies shouldn’t be “absolutists” on the issue, because information in your phone shouldn’t be treated differently than information in your home.

“This notion that somehow our data is different, and can be walled off from those other tradeoffs we make, I believe is incorrect,” said Obama, while also claiming he is “way on the civil liberties side of this thing.”

“We don’t want government to look into everyone’s phones willy-nilly,” he said.

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In the conversation, which was moderated by Evan Smith, editor-in-chief of The Texas Tribune, Obama noted that with a warrant, the government has total access to a person’s home, pointing out it’s perfectly legal for the government to “go into your bedroom to rifle through your underwear and see if there’s any evidence of wrongdoing.”

He went on to say some compromise between totally inaccessible encryption and widespread government access has to exist.

“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’s no key or no door at all, how do we apprehend the child pornographer?” asked Obama. “How do we solve or disrupt a terrorist plot?”

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Which isn’t to say that encryption should be banned: just that there should be some way for law enforcement to get in.

“How do we have encryption as strong as possible, the key as secure as possible and accessible by the smallest pool of people possible, for a subset of issues that we agree is important?” asked Obama, before admitting he does not know how to design that system.

The President added that if some sort of compromise isn’t reached now, decisions will be made later on in the aftermath of some sort of terrorist attack or disaster.

“You’ll find that after something really bad happens the politics of this will swing, it will be rushed, and then you really will have a threat to our civil liberties,” said Obama, urging privacy advocates to find some sort of compromise position now to prevent that from happening.

Obama also said that technology is a double-edged sword, adding that it 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.”

The talk also went over ways in which technology can make government better.

“The reason I’m here is to recruit you all,” said Obama. “How can we come up with new platforms, ideas, approaches, across different skill sets to solve some of the big problems we’re facing today?”

President Obama encouraged tech-savvy people to think of ways to use those skills to make America better, and to make government work better.