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Obama at SXSW: ‘Absolutist view’ on digital privacy cannot prevail

President Obama arrives at the opening day of South By Southwest at the Long Center for the Performing Arts on Friday, March 11, 2016, in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Rich Fury/Invision/AP)

AUSTIN -- President Obama defended government efforts to preserve law enforcement access to digital devices Friday, telling a crowd that included many technology innovators that society cannot end up "fetishizing our phones above every other value."

Obama made his remarks during a keynote discussion at the yearly South by Southwest Interactive conference here, after being asked by Texas Tribune journalist Evan Smith to comment on the larger implications of the pending fight between the FBI and Apple over access to an iPhone used by one of the shooters in December's terrorist attack in San Bernardino.

Relatives of San Bernardino victims and tech giants lend voices to Apple-FBI fight

Obama said he would not comment on that particular battle, which is being litigated in federal court, but he made clear in an 11-minute reply that he believes government must be able to maintain access to information it is entitled to under a lawful warrant. The remarks were among Obama's most detailed and pointed commentary on his view on balancing privacy and security in the digital age.

"My conclusion so far is that you cannot take an absolutist view on this," he said. "So if your bargain is strong encryption, no matter what, that we can and should in fact create 'black boxes,' then that I think does not strike the kind of balance that we have lived with for 200, 300 years, and it's fetishizing our phones above every other value. And that can't be the right answer."

Apple is resisting the federal government's request that the company develop software that would defeat an iPhone security feature that would erase the phone after a certain number of failed password attempts, thus allowing investigators to access the phone's contents by rapidly testing various passwords. Apple has argued that developing such software would in effect open a "back door" into its customers' devices, creating a precedent that could threaten privacy rights in America and abroad.

Obama said that such requests did not represent the government's desire to search "willy-nilly" through Americans' digital devices but instead would preserve the ability to conduct lawful investigations that has long existed.

"Before smartphones were invented, and to this day, if there is probable cause to think that you have abducted a child or you are engaging in a terrorist plot or you are guilty of some serious crime, law enforcement can appear at your doorstep and say we have a warrant to search your home, and they can go into your bedroom and rifle through your underwear to see if there's any evidence of wrongdoing," he said. "And we agree on that, because we recognize that just like all of our other rights ... that there are going to be some constraints we impose so we are safe, secure and can live in a civilized society."

"The question we now have to ask is," he added, "if technologically it is possible to make an impenetrable device or system, or the encryption is so strong that there is no key, there is no door at all, then how do we apprehend the child pornographer? How do we solve or disrupt a terrorist plot? What mechanism do we have available even to do simple things like tax enforcement? ... There has to be some concession to the need to be able to get into that information somehow."

While Obama's position puts him to the right of many tech thinkers and evangelists who have rallied behind Apple in recent weeks, Obama insisted he is "way on the civil liberties side of this thing" while cautioning against "overthrowing the values that have made us such a great nation simply for expediency."

"The dangers are real," he said. "Maintaining law and order and civilized society is important. And so I would just caution against taking an absolutist perspective on this."

Obama also warned those who support stronger privacy protections that their position might not be politically sustainable over the long run -- and he suggested that after a hypothetical terror attack that Congress, not the courts, would have the last word.

"I am confident this is something we can solve, but we're going to need the tech community, software designers, people who care deeply about this stuff, to help us solve it," he said. "If everybody goes to their respective corners ... what you'll find is that after something really bad happens, the politics of this will swing, and it will become sloppy and rushed and it will go through Congress in ways that have not been thought through, and then you really will have dangers to our civil liberties."