Speaking on Friday at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, President Obama called for government access to encrypted devices.
He said government has a legitimate need to circumvent the privacy of Americans in order to collect taxes.
“What mechanisms do we have available to even do simple things like tax enforcement because if in fact you can’t crack that at all, government can’t get in, then everybody is walking around with a Swiss bank account in their pocket,” he said.
Obama also said encryption encourages terrorists and child pornographers.
“The question we now have to ask is: If technologically it is possible to make an impenetrable device or system where the encryption is so strong that there is no key, there’s no door at all, then how do we apprehend the child pornographer, how do we solve or disrupt a terrorist plot?”
The president went on to describe smart phones as “black boxes” and said there should not be an “absolutist view” on privacy.
“If your argument is strong encryption no matter what, and we can and should create black boxes, that I think does not strike the kind of balance we have lived with for 200, 300 years, and it’s fetishizing our phones above every other value,” he said.
Obama also said smart phone technology is “very disruptive and unsettling” and allows “folks who are very dangerous to spread dangerous messages.”
On Thursday Attorney General Loretta Lynch appeared on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” to make the government’s case on encryption.
“We are not asking for a backdoor, nor are we asking [Apple CEO Tim Cook] to turn anything on to spy on anyone,” Lynch said.
She said government is “asking them to do what their customer wants.”
A poll conducted in late February by Reuters shows most Americans support Apple’s fight to protect the privacy of smart phones. Forty-six percent of respondents said they agreed with the tech company’s position, 35 percent said they disagreed and 20 percent said they did not know.
Battle Between Apple and Feds Heats Up
On Thursday Apple General Counsel Bruce Sewell responded to an accusation by the Justice Department the Cupertino, California company has made “corrosive” comments about the federal government.
The DOJ claims Apple is deliberately trying to prevent law enforcement from accessing phones and said concerns about customer privacy are a “diversion.”
“Apple’s rhetoric is not only false, but also corrosive of the very institutions that are best able to safeguard our liberty and our rights: the courts, the Fourth Amendment, longstanding precedent and venerable laws, and the democratically elected branches of government,” the DOJ said.
Sewell responded by saying the government is engaged in a smear campaign.
“In 30 years of practice I don’t think I’ve seen a legal brief that was more intended to smear the other side with false accusations and innuendo, and less intended to focus on the real merits of the case,” the attorney said in a statement.
“We add security features to protect our customers from hackers and criminals,” Sewell added. “And the FBI should be supporting us in this because it keeps everyone safe. To suggest otherwise is demeaning. It cheapens the debate and it tries to mask the real and serious issues. I can only conclude that the DOJ is so desperate at this point that it has thrown all decorum to the winds.”
Government Surveillance Prompts End-to-end encryption Boom
NSA surveillance and the attempt by the government to strong-arm Apple has prompted technology developers to increase security measures.
A messaging app backed by Skype co-founder Janus Friis has added end-to-end encryption and secure video communication to its service. The Wire app debuted in December 2014. It has fallen behind other messaging services, including WhatsApp, which has 1 billion active monthly users, and Kik Messenger with 200 million. Another competitor, Telegram, with a user base totaling a million users, has marketed its app as a solution to government surveillance.
Telegram’s Russian founder, Pavel Durov, says he is a libertarian. “The best legislative initiative—is the absence of one,” he declared in a manifesto published by Afisha magazine in 2012.
Following revelations in 2013 by Edward Snowden about NSA surveillance a number of apps emerged boasting the ability to prevent government snooping. Silent Suite, Redphone, TextSecure, Orbot, DuckDuckGo, InTheClear and other apps provide encryption and anonymity.
The government has fought back against online anonymity by claiming it encourages child pornography.
In July, 2011 the House Committee on the Judiciary floated the Protecting Children from Internet Pornographers Act. The bill requires Internet service providers to retain a record of their clients’ online data and activities for 18 months and make records available to the government upon request.