President Obama Talks Privacy And Apple Case At SXSW Keynote Address
South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi), the biggest annual technology, media, and entrepreneurship conference, had an especially prominent opening keynote speaker for its interactive portion this year: President Barack Obama. The Commander-In-Chief appeared relaxed, and even casual, in his 45-minute address, speaking about the role technology plays in civil engagement. He joked about picking up tacos at the iconic Austin institution of Torchy’s before the conference and wasn’t reading from a script.
He opened his speech on something you don’t often hear admitted. “Our government’s not working,” he said, “Our politics aren’t working as well as they should.”
He went on to poke fun at the technological short-comings of his presidency. “You may recall that I passed this law called the Affordable Care Act to give people access to health insurance, and then the website didn’t work. And this was a little embarrassing for me because, you know, I was the cool early adopter president, and my entire campaign had been premised on having really cool technology.”
That was when that humorous, self-aware tone ended and President Obama went on to say that the consequence of this embarrassment was that “we realized we could build a SWAT team, a world-class technology office, inside government. We did that with U.S. Digital Service.”
But more important than the government-bolstering rhetoric, President Obama addressed the biggest national technological issue right now, privacy.
“I anguish over decisions we make to keep the country safe,” said President Obama, “I would caution against taking an absolutist perspective.”
Although he did not directly comment on the Department of Justice court battle with Apple over access to information, he emphasized that he understood the sensitivity of the issue. “I am of the view there are reasons we should make sure government can’t willy-nilly get in everyone’s iPhone. The whole Snowden disclosure episode elevated people’s suspicions of this,” he said. “This notion that somehow data is different and can be walled off from those other trade-offs we make, I believe, is incorrect. The question we have to ask is if technology it’s possible to make an impenetrable device or system where the encryption is so strong there’s no key, there’s no door at all, then how do we apprehend the child pornographer? How do we disrupt a terrorist plot? What mechanisms do we have available to do even simple things like tax enforcement?”
Rep. Darrell Issa, who has sharply questioned FBI Director James Comey, released a statement which criticized President Obama’s comments, describing them as showing his “fundamental lack of understanding of the tech community, the complexities of encryption and the importance of privacy our safety in an increasingly digital world.” As Issa and many others have said, “There’s no way to create a special key for government that couldn’t also be taken advantage of by the Russians, the Chinese, or others who want access to the sensitive information we all carry in our pockets every day.”
President Obama is the first sitting president ever to appear at SXSW in the conference’s 30-year history. The conference is held in Austin every March in Austin. Michelle Obama will open for SXSW Music on March 16, speaking about the Let Girls Learn initiative. Other speakers include J.J Abrams, Ellen Page, Jake Gyllenhaal and Kerry Washington.
After the festival, President Obama helped raise money for Democrats at fundraisers in Austin.