Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Barack Obama Speaks With Kara Swisher

It’s about time an interview like this occurred. The United States needs a President who is well-versed in technological issues. Barack Obama is far better than any of his predecessors and his competitors in this department, but still not always brilliant. Case in point:

Let’s talk about encryption. What’s wrong with what Google and Apple are doing? You have encrypted email — shouldn’t everybody have encrypted email, or have their protections?

Everybody should. And I’m a strong believer in strong encryption. Where the tension has come up, historically, what has happened, is that — let’s say you knew a particular person was involved in a terrorist plot. And the FBI is trying to figure out who else were they communicating with, in order to prevent the plot.

Traditionally, what has been able to happen is that the FBI gets a court order. They go to the company, they request those records the same way that they’d go get a court order to request a wiretap. The company technically can comply. The issue here is that — partly in response to customer demand, partly in response to legitimate concerns about consumer privacy — the technologies may be built to a point where, when the government goes to …

They can’t get the information.

The company says, “Sorry, we just can’t pull it. It’s so sealed and tight that, even though government has a legitimate request, technologically we cannot do it.”

Is what they’re doing wrong?

No, I think they are properly responding to a market demand. All of us are really concerned about making sure our …

So what are you going to do?

Well, what we’re going to try to do is to see: Is there a way for us to narrow this gap? Ultimately, everybody — and certainly this is true for me and my family — we all want to know that if we’re using a smartphone for transactions, sending messages, having private conversations, that we don’t have a bunch of people compromising that process.

So there’s no scenario in which we don’t want really strong encryption. The narrow question is going to be if there is a proper request for … this isn’t bulk collection, this isn’t sort of fishing expeditions by government.

Where there is a situation in which we’re trying to get a specific case of a possible national security threat — is there a way of accessing it? If it turns out it’s not, then we’re really gonna have to have a public debate. And, you know, I think some in Silicon Valley would make the argument — which is a fair argument, and I get — that the harms done by having any kind of compromised encryption are far greater …

This excerpt is extremely revealing. First, it’s obvious just what a good interviewer Kara Swisher is. She doesn’t allow for digressions or monologues; she wants the answers.

But it also reveals — or at least suggests — that the President believes there’s a middle ground between strong encryption and accessibility by law enforcement. While I’m empathetic to his hopes, the fact is that any encryption strong enough to protect against financial fraud or message interception by nefarious third parties is also strong enough to prevent the FBI from poking around. There is simply no way to have strong encryption that offers a law enforcement-only backdoor.

Swisher presses him on this for a little bit afterward, but it’s clear that he’s not budging. And that’s fair. The President of the United States, regardless of who it is, sees dozens of national security threats dropped into their lap every morning, and it’s hard to reconcile that with a hard-line stance on personal privacy.

The President is right: there needs to be a debate on how much we value our privacy, weighed against the actual threat and consequence of violent crimes committed using the same tools we all use. But I don’t know that such a debate will produce a singular right answer.