Last year at the South by Southwest Interactive festival, Edward Snowden issued a “call to arms” for tech companies to develop privacy tools that will help protect against mass surveillance.
The year before that, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange accused the NSA of growing into a “rogue agency,” leading to a huge transfer of power from the people who are surveilled to those who control the surveillance complex.
At this year’s festival, the coveted Keynote Conversation slot went to President Barack Obama. Giving this platform to the president is a sharp shift in tone for a festival that has given voice to some of his fiercest critics on issues of spying and surveillance. But it was also an opportunity for Obama to make peace with the tech community, especially amidst the uproar over the FBI’s legal battle with Apple.
Wearing his version of business casual—blue shirt, no tie—Obama began by flattering Austin, Texas, both for its tacos and and for its dedication to technological advances, which he said can be both “disruptive” and “unsettling,” alluding to ISIS’s use of social media.
“The reason I’m here is to recruit all of you,” Obama told the crowd. As he is about leave office, he issued a challenge to tech developers to focus their energy on solving the country’s biggest problems—especially when Congress isn’t willing to do much on its own.
Asked by interviewer Evan Smith of the Texas Tribune about the disconnect between the forward-looking Silicon Valley and slow-moving, bureaucratic federal government, Obama first let out a heavy sigh, drawing a knowing laugh from the crowd. He then used the initial failure of Healthcare.gov as an example of something that became a success story through the cooperation of the public and private sector. The president admitted that the whole ordeal was “embarrassing” for him personally because he was supposed to be “the cool, early adapter president.” (He may have meant to say “early adopter.”)
Another issue that Obama said technology can help with is the voting process. "We are the only advanced democracy in the world that makes it harder for people to vote,” the president said. But while this again drew laughs, he reiterated that he was deadly serious. “You’re laughing, but it’s sad,” he said. “It's easier to order a pizza than to vote in this country,” he added, advocating for a “seamless” and “secure” online voting system.
“It’s not enough to just figure out what is the cool, next thing,” Obama said. Rather, we need to figure out how to harness the “cool, next thing” to solve big problems.
Touting the stimulus of 2009, which not only included programs to get more schools and communities connected to the Internet but also staved off another depression and helped cut unemployment in half, the president joked, “Thanks, Obama.”
Finally, near the end of the interview, Smith brought up the FBI’s attempt to compel Apple to override security features that are preventing them from accessing data on the iPhone of San Bernardino shooter Syed Rizwan Farook. The president said he could not “comment on the specific case,” but did go on to address the larger issues surrounding it for the rest of the session.
“All of us value our privacy and this is a society that is built on a Constitution and a Bill of Rights and a healthy skepticism about overreaching government power,” Obama began.
Removing the technology component, the president explained that if there is probable cause to think that someone has abducted a child or is planning a terrorist plot, law enforcement can issue a warrant and enter that person’s home to determine whether there is any evidence of wrongdoing.
While Obama said that federal government should not be able to just gain access to people’s cellphones “willy-nilly,” he said he believes there should be a corollary mechanism to that warrant system.
The president argued that Edward Snowden’s surveillance disclosures, along with pop culture depictions like Homeland, have inevitably made people more skeptical when it comes to privacy concerns. Obama mocked the idea that he is sitting in the Situation Room in front of a big screen watching what everyone is doing.
“The Snowden issue vastly overstated” the risks to U.S. citizens when it comes to surveillance, Obama said, but he added that they did reveal “excesses” in surveillance overseas, many of which have been curtailed in the years since.
If it is possible to make an “impenetrable” device, he asked, then “how do we apprehend the child pornographer? How do we solve or disrupt a terrorist plot?”
Even on issues like tax enforcement, Obama said that if government can’t gain access to certain information, then “Everyone’s walking around with a Swiss bank account in their pocket.”
“Setting aside the specific case between the FBI and Apple,” Obama said, “we’re going to have to make some decisions about how we balance these respective risks.” He warned against taking an “absolutist view” on the issue and in turn “fetishizing” the privacy of our phones over “every other value.”
“I am way on the civil liberties side of this thing,” Obama insisted. “I anguish a lot over the decisions we make in terms of how we keep this country safe.” But, he added, “the dangers are real.”
“This notion that somehow our data is different and can be walled off from those other trade-offs we make, I believe is incorrect,” the president concluded.
Julian Assange and Edward Snowden would likely disagree.