President Barack Obama believes that we need to strike a balance when it comes to protecting the United States from terrorists and criminals while ensuring people’s privacy. When asked about the issues around encryption and personal data raised by the government’s case against Apple, the 44th president said he believes that we shouldn’t take an “absolutist view.”

Obama appeared at the South by Southwest Interactive conference in Austin, Texas this week to ask for the American people and tech industry’s help in modernizing the federal government. But, of course, the Apple-FBI case is on everyone’s mind. When Texas Tribune editor-in-chief Evan Smith asked the president for his view on the case, although he couldn’t comment on specifics, Obama did say that he doesn’t believe the government should be able to get into people’s smartphones “willy-nilly.”

Striking a balance

The President acknowledged the necessity for strong law enforcement:

All of us value our privacy and this is a society that is built on a constitution, a Bill of Rights, and a healthy skepticism about overreaching government power. Before smartphones were invented, and to this day, if there is probable cause to think that you have abducted a child, are engaging in a terrorist plot, or if you’re guilty of a serious crime, law enforcement can appear at your doorstep, say they have a warrant to search your home, and rifle through your underwear to see if there’s any evidence of wrongdoing. And we agree on that because we recognize that with all our rights, there will be some constraints we’ll impose to ensure that we’re safe, secure, and living in a civilized society.

However, Obama also addressed the importance of protecting privacy in this increasingly connected mobile age.  “Technology is evolving so rapidly that new questions are being asked. I am of the view that there are very real reasons why the government can’t willy-nilly get into people’s smartphones that are full of very personal information and data,” he said. Obama attributed an elevated distrust of the government to the work of whistleblower Edward Snowden.

President Obama speaks at the South by Southwest Interactive conference on March 11, 2016 in Austin, Texas about civic engagement

Above: President Obama speaks at the South by Southwest Interactive conference on March 11, 2016 in Austin, Texas

Image Credit: Screenshot

He noted that the public’s desire for strong encryption also complicates things, and reiterated that the two values of privacy and security are both very important. “There has to be some concession to the need to get into the information [on smartphones],” Obama commented. “Folks on encryption side will argue that any key whatsoever, even if it’s directed at one device, will be used on every device. That is a technical question. I’m not a software engineer. It’s technically true, but it can be overstated. The question then becomes we as a society, set aside the specific case between FBI and Apple, the commercial interests, concerns about what the Chinese government could do, we’re going to have to make some decisions about how we balance these risks.” He said that the government has been working with the tech industry to resolve this complex issue.

The president admitted that he’s on the side of civil liberties. “I anguish over the decisions we make to keep the country safe. The dangers are real…I caution against taking an absolutist view on this. We make the concessions because we recognize it’s important. We have stops for drunk drivers, and it’s an intrusion, but we think it’s an important thing to do.”

Obama continued by saying that “We do have to make sure that, given the power of the Internet, [intrusions into privacy are] narrowed and constrained. I’m confident that [the problem] can be solved, but we’ll need the tech community to help us solve this stuff. What will happen is that, if people go to their respective corners and the tech community says that we either have strong encryption or it’ll be an Orwellian world, when something bad happens, the politics will swing.” He believes then that when a fix gets implemented, it will be sloppy, rushed, and won’t be thought through.

Changing the government

While many of the questions for the President were about the ongoing FBI and Apple debate, he also spoke at length about engaging the tech industry in his efforts to help improve people’s access to the government and make it more efficient.

“This gathering [at SXSW] brings together people that are at the cutting edges of these changes,” he said. “[Technology] offers enormous opportunities that are disruptive and unsettling. It empowers individuals to do things that they could never do before and also those that are extremely dangerous to spread their message. We’re trying to find ways in which our government can be a part of the positive change that is taking place and we want to help convene and catalyze folks in the private and nonprofit sectors to be a part of the broader community.”

He continued: “This group is prime to make a difference: How can we make government work better through tech, digital platforms, and so forth.” Obama talked about the government’s efforts to simply bureaucratic processes by bringing them into the digital age, citing the FAFSA (college loan) form, which was reduced two-thirds by digitizing it, putting it online, and making it more common sense. He also noted changes that have made it possible to apply for Social Security online.

“The most important office in a democracy is the office of the citizen,” the president declared. “Our politics isn’t working as well as it should.”

“We cannot solve the problems in government and in society unless we, the people, are paying attention,” he concluded. “In an age where people are getting information from digital platforms through the Internet, where people’s attention spans have shrunk, it’s critical for people who are shaping the environment [to think] about how to get citizens engaged. Doesn’t mean that you have to do it full time or run for office yourself. Whatever your field is, there’s a way for you to engage and participate to take this democracy back and change it in new ways.”

Calling on the tech industry

Stacy Donohue, investment partner at the Omiydar Network, issued a statement following Obama’s keynote:

Today President Obama called on the tech community to step up and solve the big problems facing society. Civic technology is connecting citizens, technologists, and government to improve voter participation, drive better delivery of government services, and place citizens at the heart of better government. This collaboration can solve these problems, but for it to really deliver at scale we will need more levels of government providing greater access to data, more funders recognizing the potential of the sector and crowding in capital to accelerate growth and impact, and more people using these digital solutions to demand better public services and hold government to account.

The keynote address was held at the Long Center just a few blocks away from the Austin Convention Center, and attendees were chosen by a drawing and had to arrive hours before the President. Before addressing the crowd, Obama stopped by Torchy’s to order Democrat, Republican, and Independent tacos.

Obama’s visit to the SXSW conference makes him the first sitting president to visit this annual event. Last week, he used his weekly address to explain that he’s looking to the technology sector for help modernize the federal government. Obama’s message centered around “asking everyone from all walks of life working inside and outside of government to help make this democracy even stronger.”

This is certainly not the first time Obama has reached out to the technology industry. In addition to tapping multiple luminaries from Silicon Valley to work in his administration, Obama also established a tech hub in Silicon Valley, where the government plans to invest $171 million to work with Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Boeing, General Motors, and other companies on wearable devices.

VentureBeat's mission is to be a digital town square for technical decision-makers to gain knowledge about transformative enterprise technology and transact. Learn more about membership.