Obama tells SXSW we need to balance privacy and security

Obama says we have ‘fetishised’ the security of our phones above every other value

U.S. President Barack Obama, right, waves to the audience after speaking with Evan Smith, chief executive officer and editor-in-chief of The Texas Tribune, during the South By Southwest (SXSW) Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas

U.S. President Barack Obama, right, waves to the audience after speaking with Evan Smith, chief executive officer and editor-in-chief of The Texas Tribune, during the South By Southwest (SXSW) Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas

 

As debate over the conflict between the NSA’s request for access to personal data from Apple continues to polarize American society, President Barack Obama cautioned against taking an absolutist position on the matter either way.

Speaking at the opening day of the South By SouthWest (SXSW) Interactive festival in Austin, Texas, President Obama questioned why there were acceptable levels of intrusion in the real world, while digital privacy was considered completely off limits.

“Before smartphones were invented, if there was probable cause to think that someone had abducted a child or engaged in a terrorist plot, law enforcement could appear at a person’s doorstep with a warrant to search their home for evidence,” he said.

“We agree on this because some constraints are needed to guarantee all our safety and security. So why have we fetishised the personal information on our phones above every other value?”

While, one the one hand, positioning himself more firmly on the side of those advocating for protection of civil liberties, Obama called for balance when considering this issue. “Two values are in conflict here - privacy and security,” he says. “Both are important.”

Speaking at a festival attended principally by technology enthusiasts and entrepreneurs, Obama called on the SXSW Interactive audience to work with the government on this. “The question I came here to ask is this: is it possible to develop a system with encryption that is as strong as possible, but that can somehow also be accessed by a small number of people for a subset of uses that we all agree are important? This is a technical question that I myself cannot answer.

“We already make compromises and allow for certain intrusions on our privacy: we have police stops for drunk drivers. We think it’s the right thing to do in this instance. Somehow, however, there is this notion that our data is different, and walled off from other trade-offs we make, which simply isn’t true. We need oversight and some constraint.”

The President’s central aim in attending the event was to encourage more public private partnerships, and convince tech entrepreneurs in the private sector to tackle issues such as countering online extremism, using tech to improve civic engagement, and increase numbers taking STEM subjects. However, the issue of data privacy was never far from people’s minds.

“It’s not enough for tech entrepreneurs to be focused solely on creating the next cool thing,” he said. “We need to be thinking about how to harness the next cool thing to help fix real problems. This will require increased openness between government, NGOs and the private sector.”

Obama’s keynote speech marks the first time a sitting President has ever attended the annual music, film and technology festival in Austin, Texas. SXSW continues until March 20th.