Obama at SXSW: Techies shouldn't be encryption absolutists
US President Barack Obama and The Texas Tribune editor-in-chief Evan Smith participate in SXSW’s interactive keynote event in Austin, TexasGetty Images

US President Barack Obama appeared on the South by Southwest (SXSW) show as a keynote speaker on 11 March to speak, among other things, on encryption and privacy. The president's central theme was to encourage tech giants to be agreeable to reach a compromise on encryption.

At the SXSW, Obama also spoke about how technology could be used to empower civic engagement in the 21st century. The topic brought into focus the US government and the FBI's battle with Apple, which the president touched on briefly to extol his point, which involved creating a balance between providing security to and not infringing on the privacy of the American people.

The event was moderated by The Texas Tribune's editor-in-chief Evan Smith, who sat down with the president for the interview. During the conversation, Obama said: "We recognise that just like all of our other rights, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, etc, that there are going to be some constraints imposed to ensure we are safe."

"We also want really strong encryption... [though] there has to be some concession to the need to be able to get to that information somehow," he added. "I suspect the answer will come down to how can we make sure the encryption is as strong as possible, the key is as strong as possible, it's accessible by the smallest number of people possible, for a subset of issues that we agree are important."

Speaking on the significance of citizens' privacy, Obama stressed that the government and law enforcement agencies should not be able to "just willy-nilly get into everyone's iPhones or smartphones". However, he also pointed out that when law enforcement is sanctioned to go into an individual's home "to rifle through your underwear and see if there's any evidence of wrongdoing", then by extension of the same rule, technological devices should also be exempt from complete privacy protection in certain security-related circumstances.

The POTUS ended his conversation by urging the technology community in the audience to remain engaged and contribute to improving America's security. He encouraged techies to extend their skills to take on both technical as well as political issues faced by the US government.

"The notion that our data... can be walled off from other trade-offs we make [for security] I believe is incorrect," Obama added. "I'm confident that this is something we can solve but we need the tech community to help us solve that."