Obama woos tech community in first visit to SXSW event, amid battle with Apple over iPhone unlocking

US President Barack Obama gestures to audience members after speaking at the South By Southwest (SXSW) Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas, US, on Friday, March 11, 2016. The SXSW Interactive Festival features presentations and panels from the brig
US President Barack Obama gestures to audience members after speaking at the South By Southwest (SXSW) Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas, US, on Friday, March 11, 2016. The SXSW Interactive Festival features presentations and panels from the brightest minds in emerging technology, scores of networking events hosted by industry leaders and a lineup of special programs showcasing new websites, video games, and startup ideas.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG
US President Barack Obama speaking at SXSW in Austin, Texas, on March 11.
US President Barack Obama speaking at SXSW in Austin, Texas, on March 11. PHOTO: AFP

AUSTIN (AFP/BLOOMBERG) - United States President Barack Obama on Friday (March 11) addressed SXSW - the technology world's Davos and Woodstock rolled into one - making a recruitment pitch to America's whizkids, even as the government is embroiled in a high-profile battle with Apple.

Mr Obama travelled to Austin, Texas, to urge programers and other tech entrepeneurs to enlist and help make government services better.

"We need you," he said.

But an otherwise warm welcome from the young and liberal crowd of 2,100 was marked by skepticism about his government's clashes with tech firms over security.

Mr Obama's appearance on Friday at the event, the first by a sitting president, comes as the FBI tries to force Apple to help investigators access an iPhone used by one of the assailants in December's deadly San Bernardino, California, terror attack.

But that has prompted a wider debate within both the government and the tech community over privacy and whether government should have back-door access to encrypted content.

Mr Obama told the crowd it was not new to accept some curbs on privacy in exchange for personal security.

He said on Friday that smartphones - like the iPhone the FBI is trying to force Apple Inc. to help it hack - cannot be allowed to be "black boxes", inaccessible to the government.

The technology industry, he said, should work with the government instead of leaving the issue to Congress. "You cannot take an absolutist view on this," Mr Obama said. "If your argument is strong encryption no matter what, and we can and should create black boxes, that I think does not strike the kind of balance we have lived with for 200, 300 years, and it's fetishising our phones above every other value."

Apple has appealed a magistrate court order that it assist the government, saying to do so would undermineits encryption technology.

Rapid technological advancements "offer us enormous opportunities, but also are very disruptive and unsettling", Mr Obama said at the festival, where he hoped to persuade tech workers to enter public service. "They empower individuals to do things that they could have never dreamed of before, but they also empower folks who are very dangerous to spread dangerous messages."

Siding with Apple are technology companies including Amazon, Microsoft Corp, Facebook. and Google's parent Alphabet.

On Thursday, the government filed a memorandum in the case arguing that Apple would need to assign as few as six workers for as little as two weeks to hack into Syed Farook's phone.

"This burden, which is not unreasonable, is the direct result of Apple's deliberate marketing decision to engineer its products so that the government cannot search them, even with a warrant," government attorneys said in the filing.

Mr Obama was interviewed at the festival by the chief executive and editor in chief of the Texas Tribune, Mr Evan Smith, who told him that "it looks to the tech community, or to some in the tech community, that government is the enemy" in its dealings with Apple.

SXSW, now 30 years old, has grown from an event to highlight local musicians and artists into one of the nation's largest and most popular technology conferences and film-and- music festivals.

The White House has backed the FBI in its fight with Apple, but has said Mr Obama believes it it is vital to balance privacy protections against the needs of law enforcement. Mr Obama has not weighed in on legislation being drafted by Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, and the senior Democrat on the panel, Ms Dianne Feinstein of California, which would require companies to comply with court orders asking for assistance accessing encrypted data.

He indicated on Friday that he believes leaving the matter to lawmakers may not be ideal. The result would be "sloppy and rushed and it will go through Congress in ways that have not been thought through", he said.

Apple and other tech firms have said that building backdoors into their encrypted products could put them at a disadvantage to foreign competitors. They have also warned that China or other countries could demand similar cooperation with government investigations.

Without commenting on the Apple case, Mr Obama dismissed those arguments, saying that for centuries law enforcement agencies have been able to search private property for evidence of crimes using a warrant.

"The question we now have to ask is, if technologically it is possible to make an impenetrable device or system, where the encryption is so strong there's no key, there's no door at all, then how do we apprehend the child pornographer? How do we solve or disrupt a terrorist plot?" Mr Obama said. "If in fact you can't crack that at all, government can't get in, then everybody's walking around with a Swiss bank account in their pocket."

Compromise is possible, he said, and the technology industry must help design it. "I suspect the answer is going to come down to, how do we create a system that, encryption is as strong as possible, the key is secure as possible, and it is accessible by the smallest number of people possible for the subset of issues that we agree is important," he said.