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Obama Decries Privacy 'Absolutism,' Praises Tech in SXSW Interactive Talk

"The reason I'm here is really to recruit all of you."

Neilson Barnard / Getty Images

Addressing a crowd full of SXSW Interactive tech festival attendees, President Barack Obama made a full-throated pitch for increased civic engagement in the tech sector and condemned what he called “the absolutist view” of encryption by privacy activists.

The president’s remarks were part of an opening keynote conversation held onstage at the Long Center for the Performing Arts in Austin, Texas. His interviewer, Texas Tribune CEO and Editor in Chief Evan Smith, pressed him on how to spur civic interest within the tech sector, as well as on the ongoing national conversation over government access to encrypted consumer information. Their conversation additionally touched on the botched launch and ways to reduce inefficiencies in government through technology.

“We’re spending a lot of time figuring out how can we make government work better through tech, digital platforms and so forth,” the president told Smith. “We’ve reduced the FAFSA [college financial aid] form process … by about two-thirds, by digitalizing it, putting it online, making it a little more commonsense.

“[It’s] now possible to apply for Social Security online in ways that couldn’t be done before. Across agencies, we’re interacting every day with our government, and the question is: How do we make that work better?”

Obama’s SXSW talk comes at perhaps the tensest moment ever for the government-tech industry relationship. Apple’s fight with the FBI over assisting law enforcement to gain access to encrypted user data on an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters has deepened the privacy and cyber security rift between Silicon Valley and government.

On Thursday, the Justice Department and Apple traded dueling documents that accused each other of deceiving the public and misrepresenting each other’s stated positions. Most tech companies — including heavyweights like Microsoft, Google and Amazon — have taken Apple’s side, and many of those same firms have swarmed SXSW with swanky parties and hefty marketing budgets. The president said that he was not going to comment on the specifics of the Apple-FBI dispute, but he took time to specifically address the encryption debate.

“We have engaged the tech community aggressively, and what my conclusion is so far is that you cannot take an absolutist view on this,” he said. “If your argument is strong encryption no matter what … that, I think, does not strike the balance that we have lived with for 200, 300 years, and it’s fetishizing our phones above every other value. That can’t be the right answer.”

“And let’s face it, the whole Snowden disclosure episode elevated people’s suspicions of this,” he added a couple minutes later. “I will say, by the way, that … the Snowden issue vastly overstated the dangers to U.S. citizens in terms of spying.”

Aside from his veiled criticism of companies like Apple and other staunch advocates for consumer privacy, the President praised the private sector for the work it has done with government thus far on other issues, such as the Open eBooks Library and

“We’ve partnered with an array of companies … private industry has really stepped up,” the president said to Smith. “One of the great tricks to all this is making sure that whatever government is doing is supplemented with and then enhanced by a private sector and non-profit sectors that are ready to step up.”

On the initially unsuccessful launch of, an online health insurance marketplace that was a part of the Affordable Care Act, the president used the opportunity to praise the savvy of Silicon Valley engineers who helped right the ship.

“We had to bring in a SWAT team of all my friends from Silicon Valley and Austin, and some of the best software engineers in the world to fix [the website],” he said. “We realized we could potentially build a SWAT team, a world-class tech office, inside of government.”

And recruiting for that SWAT team is part of why Obama chose to speak at SXSW Interactive in the first place. Within the tech community, the festival has traditionally served as a launching pad for hyped startups and a brand orgy for large companies that want some of Silicon Valley’s luster to rub off on their own businesses. For Obama, it was an opportunity to pitch a room full of industry insiders on why they should bring their talents to Washington and the civic sector in general.

Obama concluded his talk by making a pitch directly to the crowd.

“In 10 months, I will not have this office,” he said. “But it’s not like I stopped caring about the things I care about right now, and it’s not like i’m going to stop being involved … and I expect you to step up and get involved, because your country needs you.”

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