Future Tense

Tech Whiplash: Obama Endorses, Then Undermines, Encryption

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during the White House Summit on Cybersecurity and Consumer Protection on Feb. 13, 2015, at Stanford.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

President Obama talked a surprising amount of common sense on his trip last week to Silicon Valley, where he spoke at a cybersecurity gathering at Stanford University. But he undermined some noteworthy remarks about strong encryption—we need it, he said—with the kind of fear-monger hedging that has become almost every politician’s refuge from telling the hard truth.

In an interview with Kara Swisher, co-founder of the Re/code technology journalism site, Obama talked directly about what’s at stake. With some sharp questions—more so than the Washington press corps has asked the president on technology- and security-related topics—Swisher elicited some remarkable admissions.

The first was Obama’s clear statement that he, personally, favors ubiquitous strong encryption. He thinks everyone should use it but hedges that by saying law enforcement needs a way to break into communications and data.

“[T]here’s no scenario in which we don’t want really strong encryption,” he said. “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.”

Why so? Because, he said, “Our law enforcement is expected to stop every plot. Every attack. Any bomb on a plane. The first time that attack takes place in which it turns out that we had a lead and we couldn’t follow up on it, the public’s going to demand answers.”

And there you have it—a view of the world that, unfortunately, seems to be the accepted one. Let’s unpack it.

Give the president some credit. He’s admitting that we need strong encryption. Hallelujah.

Then, in effect, he admits we’re going to be attacked again—which is only common sense. But he strongly implies that the purported “public debate” will be a rational one. It will not, and it never has been. In times of national stress, demagogues and authoritarians have always captured that debate and turned it into an irresistible (for our cowardly politicians) call to ratchet down our liberties.

The cowardice of politicians comes, in part, from our own. As a public we’ve conditioned ourselves, and have been conditioned by media and powerful people, to live in a perpetual state of fear. We have no sense of actual risk.

Part of this is innate to the human condition. But we need leaders who’ll tell the truth—that we cannot possibly stop every attack without turning the nation into a police state that is, in fact, even less safe; that America’s founding document, the Constitution, is a deliberate trade-off in which we agree to take some risks to preserve essential liberty.

We need liberty-minded leaders who’ll explain that strong encryption does create some additional risks. But they need to add, again and again until the public understands, two fundamental truths. First, securing our conversations and data from outsiders is absolutely essential for our security in all kinds of other ways. Second, those benefits outweigh law enforcement’s understandable wish to be able to tap and record every conversation, and unlock every bit of data anyone might be storing on any device. In a digital world, we genuinely can’t have it both ways. This is a genuinely binary question: yes or no.

Unfortunately, in suggesting that we’ll be clamoring for the ability of police to break into everything, Obama is basically refusing to lead. Sad to say, given his administration’s abysmal record on such matters, I don’t expect any better from this president—or from any of the candidates who have a prayer of being elected president in 2016.

So I interpret the president’s remarks, instead, as a prelude to this or a future administration’s campaign to ban strong encryption. When people tell you it’s possible to have strong encryption with backdoors, they are deceiving you. Don’t be fooled.