In Apple Security Case, Obama Calls To Strike A Balance The president's appearance at SXSW's technology conference comes as the Justice Department tries to force Apple to help it unlock an iPhone. Many in the tech world oppose the government's position.
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In Apple Security Case, Obama Calls To Strike A Balance

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In Apple Security Case, Obama Calls To Strike A Balance

In Apple Security Case, Obama Calls To Strike A Balance

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

President Obama was in Austin, Texas, yesterday to make peace with techies. He spoke at the annual South By Southwest Interactive Festival. The president went there to ask for help getting Americans more civically engaged, but he also spoke for the first time at length about the issues in the standoff between his administration and Apple over a terrorist's iPhone. NPR's Laura Sydell reports.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: Since last month, Apple and the Justice Department have been slinging legal arguments at each other like swear words. The fight began after a federal magistrate ordered Apple to write special software to assist the FBI in breaking into an iPhone. The phone in question was used by one of the terrorists who killed 14 people in San Bernardino. Apple is challenging the magistrate's order. President Obama said he couldn't address the San Bernardino case directly, but he gave his thoughts on those who think the government should never be able to get into somebody's smartphone.

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BARACK OBAMA: 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.

SYDELL: Like safety. President Obama pointed out that authorities have always been able to break locks in the physical world when they can prove to a judge that they have probable cause to believe someone is a criminal.

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OBAMA: And they can go into bedroom and into bedroom drawers and rifle through your underwear...

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: ...To see if there's any evidence of wrongdoing.

SYDELL: And Obama notes that since the attacks on 9/11, Americans have put up with searches and screenings before they step on an airplane. Obama said we must find a way to balance privacy and security. And the tech community must help or Congress will act...

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OBAMA: In ways that have not been thought through. And then you really will have a dangerous (ph) to our civil liberties because we will have not done - the people who understand this best and who care most about privacy and civil liberties have sort of disengaged or have taken a position that is not sustainable for the general public as a whole over time.

SYDELL: Obama's stated purpose in visiting South By Southwest was to bridge a gap between the private tech sector and government. Most of his time on stage, he spoke about technology specialists helping government better engage with citizens to solve big problems. And it seems like he may have bridged some gaps, even as the fight between Apple and the FBI continues to create friction. Tony Weisman, the CEO of tech marketing firm DigitasLBi, says when he walked into Obama's talk, he was on Apple's side completely.

TONY WEISMAN: It shifted my position because I think what he does so is he tends to take the heat out of an argument. And a lot of social media in our - particularly in this tech world tends to be dominated by absolutist views and black and white. And he's very good at finding a common ground.

SYDELL: Weisman says he now isn't so sure that smartphones should be sacred spaces where the government can never look, even when public safety is an issue. He wasn't the only one persuaded by the president. Cameron Barragan with the tech marketing firm Bazaarvoice also began to see that there might be some way for techies and the government to find middle ground.

CAMERON BARRAGAN: Where both parties can come together and find a solution really built on this whole idea of - the same kind of concepts behind probable cause as you, like, use in a car or in someone's house. So that was a new way for me to kind of think about it.

SYDELL: But some others said they weren't persuaded by the president. And most people in the tech community won't get to hear Obama in person, so there's likely to be more mudslinging from both sides over privacy, security and our smartphones.

Laura Sydell, NPR News, Austin, Texas.

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