Obama on FBI v. Apple, Encryption: ‘We Can’t Fetishize Our Phones Above Other Values’

Natt Garun, reporting on President Obama’s remarks on stage at SXSW:

“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.”

Obama is sadly on the wrong side on this one. (Not surprising, given his past remarks and the fact that the Department of Justice is part of the Executive Branch.)

Here’s the thing: it is technically possible to make an impenetrable device. I strongly suspect Apple will, this year or next, begin selling them. And law enforcement will have to catch and prosecute criminals the same way they always have: through the evidence they can legally obtain.

“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.”

I firmly believe Obama is advocating the wrong set of trade-offs. Our phones are either insecure, making life easier for law enforcement — or, our phones are secure, making life more difficult for law enforcement, rendering some potential evidence unobtainable. We don’t ban matches to prevent people from burning evidence. We don’t mandate weak locks to make it easier for the police to crack safes.

I keep thinking about a line from Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil: “A policeman’s job is only easy in a police state.

Friday, 11 March 2016