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Obama: 'There’s No Scenario in Which We Don’t Want Really Strong Encryption'

Shouldn't regular people be entitled keep their communications private, just like the president does, asked Kara Swisher?

Vjeran Pavic

The ongoing tussle over people’s data has pitted President Barack Obama and his administration against companies like Apple and Google, as both sides take up an increasingly crucial debate about the balance between privacy and protection.

These companies are among a number of tech giants that have pushed Washington to end the bulk collection of private data because of customer privacy concerns, while the NSA has said the practice is necessary to fighting terrorism.

As part of a one-on-one interview with Re/code on a wide range of technology topics, Kara Swisher* asked the president whether American citizens should be entitled to control their data, just as the president controls his own private conversations through encrypted email. It’s an issue that’s increasingly important as people move their conversations and payments to newer, more secure alternatives on mobile phones.

“You have encrypted email, shouldn’t everybody have encrypted email, or have their protections?” she asked.

Obama replied that he’s “a strong believer in strong encryption …. I lean probably further on side of strong encryption than some in law enforcement.” He maintained that he is as firm on the topic as he ever has been.

But the issue, Obama said, is the hypothetical. What if the FBI has a good case against someone involved in a terrorist plot and wants to know who that person was communicating with? Traditionally, they could get a court order for a wire tap. Today, a company might tell the FBI they can’t technically comply.

That’s not to say Obama would point specifically to a case where encryption stymied an investigation. “The first time that an 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,” he said.

Obama didn’t offer any proposals, but he staked his own position. “Ultimately everybody, and certainly this is true for me and my family, we all want to know that if we’re using a smartphone for transactions, sending messages, having private conversations, that we don’t have a bunch of people compromising that process. There’s no scenario in which we don’t want really strong encryption.”

Sensitive to Silicon Valley concerns about government eavesdropping, Obama added, “This isn’t bulk collection. This isn’t fishing expeditions by government.”

* Kara Swisher is married to but separated from Megan Smith, chief technology officer for the Obama Administration. See her ethics statement here.

This article originally appeared on

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