President Obama celebrated attending SXSW this year by doing the most SXSW thing ever: an interminable and substance-lite keynote discussion. Obama talked with Texas Tribune editor-in-chief Evan Smith about the current encryption debate—but admitted his stance boils down to “I’m not a technical expert, but let’s not be absolutists about this whole ‘backdoor key’ thing.”
“Everybody’s walking around with a Swiss bank account in their pocket. So there has to be some concession, for a need to get into that information somehow,” Obama said. “Folks on the encryption side will argue that any key, whatsoever, even if it starts off being used for one device, could be used for every device.”
This was a strange thing to say, partly because it’s not illegal to simply have a Swiss bank account, and partly because Obama is openly admitting that he wants tech companies to create keys for law enforcement. While also admitting that doing so will harm security.
Obama is correct about this: Many privacy experts argue that creating special backdoor keys, even if they’re intended only for narrow use, is tantamount to creating a security flaw. Cryptographers and security researchers frequently and vocally oppose creating backdoor keys for this reason.
While Obama admitted that it is “technically true” that keys pose a danger, he insisted that this danger “can be overstated.”
“My conclusion so far is that you cannot take an absolutist view on this,” Obama said, characterizing advocates for strong encryption as “fetishizing our phones above every other value.”
“How we design that is not something I have the expertise to do,” Obama continued, before traipsing off to eat tacos, chat with Meaghan from Foursquare, and pop into the App Tent to check out some disruptive new software.