At this year's SXSW in Austin, TX, President Barack Obama addressed the tech community directly on the issue of encryption, stating that those who are in favor of strong encryption,
no matter what, are not on the side of American values.
It's fetishizing our phones above every other value, he told the audience.
And that can't be the right answer.
It was an answer the audience of technologists was largely unreceptive to, but Obama shared what he saw as good precedent: The Transportation Security Administration. According to the official transcript of his remarks, he said:
Because we make compromises all the time. I haven't flown commercial in a while -- (laughter) -- but my understanding is it's not great fun going through security. But we make the concession because -- it's a big intrusion on our privacy, but we recognize it as important. We have stops for drunk drivers. It's an intrusion, but we think it's the right thing to do. And this notion that somehow our data is different and can be walled off from those other tradeoffs we make I believe is incorrect.
We do have to make sure, given the power of the Internet and how much our lives are digitalized, that it is narrow and it is constrained and that there’s oversight. And I'm confident this is something that 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.
That might not have been the best comparison to make, given that the TSA has been widely decried in the tech community as wasteful security theater and has been plagued by studies that have found it almost completely ineffective at stopping threats.
Weakening encryption might have a similar result, with officials able to say they did something even as the positive results are outweighed by the costs. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), originally one of the most outspoken critics of strong encryption, appears to have changed his stance on the issue, stating that ultimately weakening American technology companies' encryption efforts could ultimately hurt national security overall.
“I was all with you until I actually started getting briefed by the people in the Intel Community," he told Attorney General Loretta Lynch during Senate hearings. “I will say that I’m a person that’s been moved by the arguments about the precedent we set and the damage we might be doing to our own national security.