Obama calls on tech-gov't partnerships to solve problems, talks Apple-FBI showdown

President's SXSW keynote covered how the tech industry and government can work together, while Apple vs. FBI loomed in the background.

Image: Erin Carson/TechRepublic

Tech and government have an increasingly tricky relationship.

President Barack Obama delivered the opening keynote of 2016's SXSW Interactive festival, in Austin, Texas, Friday afternoon, making him the first sitting president to attend the event.

The conversation, which was moderated by Evan Smith, editor-in-chief of the Texas Tribune, encompassed the idea of the government, the private sector, and non-profits joining forces to not only boost civic engagement, but figure out how to tackle the biggest issues facing society.

However, discussion was backlit by the recent struggle between Apple and the FBI over whether Apple will comply with a court order to decrypt the iPhone of the accused San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook.

The topic didn't actually come up until the last portion of the talk when Smith asked him to comment. Obama said he couldn't speak directly on the case, but did spend several minutes on the matter.

Obama wants find a way to balance the values of protecting privacy but also having the ability to thwart certain threats. He referenced how there are already circumstances where law enforcement can literally go through a person's underwear drawer. Citizens accept situations like this.

"There are going to be some constraints that we impose to ensure we're safe, secure, and living in a civilized society," he said.

However, he did say that he does not want the government to be able to access someone's phone "willy-nilly."

His ideal situation is one in which encryption is as strong as it can be, the key is as strong as possible, but only accessible to the smallest number of people, and only for a subset of certain issues. He did acknowledge though, he's not a programmer.

He also warned against taking an absolutist view on the issue either way, but as for those advocating impenetrable encryption said, "It's fetishizing our phone above every other value."

SEE: Apple vs. FBI: TechRepublic members speak out, side with Apple

Apple aside, the President's remarks cap off a recent run of technology-oriented initiatives and announcements. To name a few, just this week, the White House announced another expansion of the TechHire initiative, which turned one year old on March 9. TechHire's aim is to get more Americans plugged into the roughly 600,000 open tech jobs in the U.S. through partnerships with local governments and organizations promoting both traditional and nontraditional education. Fifteen more communities joined the the roster, bringing the total up to more than 40.

The White House also announced that it would be strengthening and extending on the job training for international STEM graduates through a program called STEM OPT. In addition, the new Opportunity Project will use open data to improve communities, and in February, the Obama administration sought $19 billion to increase funding for cybersecurity in 2017.

In a call previewing Obama's remarks, U.S. CDO Jason Goldman emphasized the ways Obama is looking to address myriad issues facing the country using technology, and with help from the technology industry, to make government run better.

In the SXSW address, Obama referenced the debacle saying it was embarrassing for the site to have such crippling problems.

"I was the cool early adapter president," he said. The fix was to put together a SWAT team of sorts from the tech world to fix it.

He talked about the idea that many citizens form negative impressions of the government because their interactions are with things like going to the DMV for filing taxes. Those aren't exactly stellar examples of how tax dollars are being used.

But, when presenting the idea of moving functions like voter registration online, Smith did ask about the digital divide. High percentages of various minority populations don't have internet access — would that not leave them disenfranchised? Obama answered with examples of initiatives to increase internet access for all. Though again, this could be another opportunity to enlist the tech community to help figure it out.

And if all those sectors work together, he said, "then there's no problem we face in this country that's not solvable."

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Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.

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