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​Obama at SXSW: "Dangers are real" in debate over encryption

President Barack Obama speaks during the 2016 SXSW Music, Film + Interactive Festival at Long Center on March 11, 2016 in Austin, Texas.

Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

AUSTIN, Texas - President Barack Obama sided with law enforcement Friday in the debate pitting encryption and personal privacy against national security, arguing that authorities need access to data on electronic devices because the "dangers are real."

Appearing at an annual tech festival in the Texas capital, Mr. Obama delivered his most extensive comments to date on an issue being played out in federal court. Apple, one of the world's largest technology companies, is challenging the government's request that it help the FBI access data on a cellphone that was used in the San Bernardino, California, attack that killed 14 people.

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President Barack Obama participates in a SXSW panel conversation with Evan Smith, Editor-in-Chief of the Texas Tribune news service.
Erich Schlegel/Getty Images

The issue has roiled the tech industry and divided Mr. Obama's advisers, but the president seemed to side Friday with law enforcement despite also saying the matter would not be settled by adopting an "absolutist view."

The President restated his commitment to strong encryption but also raised the question of how would authorities catch child pornographers or disrupt terrorist plots if smartphones and other electronic devices are designed in ways that keep the data on them locked away forever.

"My conclusion so far is that you cannot take an absolutist view on this," Mr. Obama said. "So if your argument is strong encryption, no matter what, and 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," he said.

At the end of a nearly hourlong, question-and-answer session with Evan Smith, CEO and editor in chief of The Texas Tribune, Smith asked the president "where do you come down" on the privacy versus security debate. He was not asked to comment on the dispute with Apple.

President Obama said government shouldn't be able to "just willy nilly" access smartphones that are full of very personal data. But at the same time, while asserting that he's "way on the civil liberties side," Mr. Obama said "there has to be some concession" to be able to get the information in certain cases.

Apple and the federal government are embroiled in a legal fight over Apple's refusal to help the FBI access the iPhone used in San Bernardino. The FBI has been unable on its own to unlock the phone and wants Apple to create a program specifically for that phone to help the bureau get to the data on it. But Apple has refused, and says that to do what the government is asking would set a terrible precedent.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who has sharply questioned FBI Director James Comey during congressional hearings on the matter, released a statement in which he said Mr. Obama's comments showed his "fundamental lack of understanding of the tech community, the complexities of encryption and the importance of privacy to our safety in an increasingly digital world."

Issa said the solution, or key, that the government wants Apple to create could eventually compromised.

"There's just no way to create a special key for government that couldn't also be taken advantage of by the Russians, the Chinese or others who want access to the sensitive information we all carry in our pockets every day," Issa said.

Mr. Obama used his appearance at the decades-old South By Southwest Festival to encourage the audience of tech enthusiasts to step forward and use their skills and imagination to "tackle big problems in new ways." He said the administration already is using technology to make people's lives better, and cited as an example the streamlining of federal applications. Offering up a problem in need of a solution, he urged industry leaders and entrepreneurs to use technology to help increase voter participation.

"The reason I'm here, really, is to recruit all of you. It's to say to you, as I'm about to leave office, how can we start coming up with new platforms and new ideas, new approaches across disciplines and across skill sets, to solve some of the big problems that we're facing today."

South by Southwest Interactive is part of South by Southwest, a movie, music and interactive media festival that has been held in Austin for the past 30 years. Mr. Obama's appearance at the festival was the first by a sitting U.S. president.

After the festival, which also is known as SXSW, Mr. Obama helped raise money for Democrats at a pair of fundraisers in Austin.