Obama can't talk about Apple vs. the FBI, but now we know where he stands

The World
 President Barack Obama speaks at the opening Keynote during the 2016 SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas.

President Barack Obama speaks at the opening Keynote during the 2016 SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas.

Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for SXSW

President Barack Obama, the first US president to speak at the annual South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, spent the majority of his time trying to recruit the audience of tech entrepreneurs and enthusiasts to help government improve and work better through technology.

But clearly on the minds of many here was the case between Apple and the FBI and whether the tech company should open up a back door in an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters. While not addressing specifics, Obama offered his thoughts about the larger privacy vs. security debate and it's clear where he stands — and that's with the FBI.

While Obama acknowledged he couldn't speak specifically about the Apple-FBI case, he said if government has no way into a smartphone, “then everyone is walking around with a Swiss bank account in your pocket," he said.

Obama says there is a need to protect a child from a pornographer, or stop someone from engaging in a terrorst plot.  "We can get a warrant," he said. "We agree on that."

But he said that technology is evolving so rapidly that there are big questions to ask.

“If, technologically, it is possible to make an impenetrable device or system, where the encryption is so strong that there is no key, there is no door at all, then how do we apprehend the child pornographer?” Obama said. “How do we disrupt a terrorist plot?”

For Melanie Smith, who works in public health and watched Obama speak from one of the many packed overflow rooms at SXSW, the privacy debate is a difficult subject.

"I’m one of those people who can see both sides," she said. "I understand that what I have in my phone, I feel like, should be mine. Just like whatever is in my house. But I think he made a good point that if I commit a crime, the government can come into my home and do what they have to do. There should be something in place that can allow them to go into someone’s phone if there is information that can help them. It’s just that, how do you get that without violating everyone else’s privacy."

Obama broadened his case, saying the disclosures by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden "vastly overstated the threat to US privacy."

He said we want really strong encryption so hackers can't just get into our devices. But he cautioned against creating an impenetrable technology without any keys. Certainly not everyone agrees.

Obama, the first US president to speak at SXSW in its 30-year history, spent the majority of his time trying to recruit the audience of tech entrepreneurs and enthusiasts to help government improve and work better through technology. He said despite the advances in technology, it has actually become harder to do things like vote in the US.

But Obama tried to make the case that his administration had made some step, pointing out they were able to the federal student financial aid form, the FAFSA, in an easier to use digital format. And the Social Security agency has moved online.

But he called on technologists to help tackle big problems in new ways. He asked how government can work better together to come up with new ways to solve some of the challenges we face.

And, Obama recognized that the government is bloated and bureaucratic, which can be frustrating, while tech is slick and streamlined and ready for the new.

Obama is hoping to institutionalize constant technological improvement in government and keep the tech community engaged. In a contentious political year, it's hard to see if that will succeed.