Though Obama spent most of the one-hour conversation on the importance of innovation to leverage civic engagement, he managed to avoid commenting on the San Bernardino iPhone case, claiming he could not make an official statement at this time.
He did, however, pose the question of how to find the balance between privacy and the security of our greater society.
“We can’t take an absolutist view on this,” he said, citing two sides of the arguments.
“Before smartphones were invented… if there is probable cause to think you abducted a child or are engaging in a terrorist plot, law enforcement can appear at your doorstep [use a] warrant to search your home and rifle through your underwear to see if there’s any evidence of wrongdoing. And we agreed on that because just like all of our other rights, there are going to be some constraints that we impose to ensure that we are safe, secure and living in a civilized society.”
He also said he understands the value of privacy, and that government should not “willy nilly get” into smartphones to look at personal data. Still, despite urging audience members to not take an absolutist view, it seems the government will eventually need to make clear the circumstances during which it’s acceptable to bypass security on devices that become part of a criminal investigation.
“If it was technologically possible to make an impenetrable device where there’s no door at all, then how do we apprehend the child pornographer? How do we disrupt a terrorist plot? How do we even do a simple thing like tax enforcement?” he posed. “If government can’t get in, then everyone’s walking around with a Swiss bank account in their pocket. There has to be some concession to get into that information somewhere.”
“Setting aside the specific case between the FBI and Apple, we’re gonna have to make some decisions about how we balance these respective risks,” POTUS concludes. “We can’t fetishize our phones above every other value. The dangers are real. This notion that sometimes our data is different and can be walled off from these other trade-offs is incorrect.”