Obama warns of dangers in 'absolutist' stance on encryption

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President Obama on Friday cautioned against adopting an “absolutist” stance on encryption, amid a heated battle between his Department of Justice and Apple.

“My conclusion so far is that you cannot take an absolutist view on this,” he said at the South by Southwest Interactive conference in Austin, Texas.

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“So if your argument is strong encryption no matter what, and we can and should create black boxes, that I think does not strike the kind of balance that we have lived with for two hundred, three hundred years and it's fetishizing our phones above every other value. And that can’t be the right answer.”

He also said privacy advocates and the tech industry should be wary of adopting such a posture because a major terrorist attack or crime could very quickly shift the popular will on the issue in law enforcement's favor.

“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,” he said.

“And then you really will have dangers to our civil liberties because … the people who understand this best and who care most about privacy and civil liberties have sort of disengaged and taken a position that is not sustainable for the general public as a whole over time.”

Obama declined to comment on the specific case involving Apple and the FBI, saying he was unable to do so,; his answer came in response to a question about the court battle that has brought the encryption issue to the forefront.

The FBI says Apple should be required to write software that would grant the law enforcement agency access to encrypted data on an iPhone that was used by one of the San Bernardino attackers.

But the company says doing so would open its systems up to other intrusions and has stayed firm in its refusal to comply with the FBI’s request.