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Written by: Mike Yang

Much has been said on both sides of the Apple-FBI debate in the last month, and now President Barack Obama has let his thoughts on the subject be known. Obama, speaking at the South By Southwest Interactive conference, said he is “way on the civil liberties side of this thing” but also said there needs to be some compromise in the case before legislators get involved and do something “in ways that have not been thought through”.
The disagreement between Apple and the FBI over whether the company should aid the agency in accessing an encrypted iPhone has galvanized people on both sides of the issue. A number of politicians have discussed the issue publicly, with many expressing support for the FBI’s position. In his speech, Obama said he understood the reasoning on both sides of the issue and echoed a common refrain in the security community: security is about tradeoffs.
Americans are used to making tradeoffs and compromises in the name of security, Obama said, citing airport security checkpoints, and said data isn’t exempt from that.

“And this notion that somehow our data is different and can be walled off from those other trade-offs we make, I believe is incorrect. We do have to make sure, given the power of the Internet and how much our lives are digitalized, that it is narrow, and is constrained, and that there’s oversight,” Obama said in his speech.

Obama said he believes that “absolutist” positions on this issue aren’t helpful and there is some room for a solution that would enable law enforcement to have access to encrypted devices and communications while still preserving users’ privacy and security. This is a road that the federal government has explored many times in the past, most notably with the Clipper Chip. And it’s an idea that security experts and cryptographers generally have rejected as impossible to secure.

“I suspect the answer will come down to how can we create a system where the encryption is as strong as possible, the key as secure as possible, it’s accessible by the smallest number of people possible, for a subset of issues that we agree are important. How we design that is not something I have the expertise to do,” Obama said.

The middle ground that Obama is seeking on the encryption issue has been hard to find in any of the discussions since the story became public last month. But it’s also quite difficult to find in technical explorations of encryption, because data is either encrypted or it’s not. But Obama said that the tech and security communities should be able to find a way make things work, outside of the courts and Congress.

“I’m confident that this is something that we can solve. But we’re going to need the tech community, the software designers, the people who care deeply about this stuff to help us solve it. Because what will happen is if everyone goes to their respective corners and the tech community says, ‘Either we have strong, perfect encryption or else it’s big brother and an Orwellian world,’ what you’ll find is that after something really bad happens, the politics of this will swing, and they will become sloppy, and rushed, and it will go through Congress in ways that have not been thought through,” Obama said.