Ever since Apple refused to assist the FBI in breaking through the iPhone’s encryption last month, the United States has been engaged in an unprecedented debate about privacy and security, and numerous high-profile people from both the government and the technology industry have come forward to express their opinions on the matter. One person who has been conspicuously absent from the debate, however, has been President Obama, but he broke his silence in front of a sizable group of SXSW attendees in Austin on Friday. Naturally, he tried to keep his opinion as neutral as possible, saying that both sides of the debate need to be open to compromise, but he definitely seemed to favor the FBI’s position.
President Obama said Friday that law enforcement must be legally able to collect information from smartphones and other electronic devices, making clear, despite divisions in his administration, that he opposes the stance on encryption taken by technology companies like Apple. Speaking to an audience of about 2,100 technology executives and enthusiasts at the South by Southwest festival here, Mr. Obama delivered his most extensive declarations on an issue that has split the technology community and pitted law enforcement against other national security departments. Mr. Obama declined to comment specifically on the efforts by the F.B.I. to require Apple’s help in gaining data from an iPhone used by one of the terrorists in the December attack in San Bernardino, Calif. But the president said that America had already accepted that law enforcement can “rifle through your underwear” in searches for those suspected of preying on children, and he said there was no reason that a person’s digital information should be treated differently. “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?” Mr. Obama said. “How do we disrupt a terrorist plot?”