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SXSW: Obama Confronts a Skeptical Silicon Valley

March 11, 2016
The President is expected to ask for ideas, recruit coders in a public service program similar to the Peace Corps and, of course, field questions about the government's ongoing battle with Apple.

President Barack Obama is heading to Austin, Texas, to recruit technology workers to government service at the South by Southwest festival. He might instead find himself asked to explain his administration’s high-stakes showdown with one of Silicon Valley’s biggest names.

Obama’s appearance on Friday at the event known as SXSW, the first by a sitting president, comes as the FBI tries to force Apple Inc. to help investigators crack into an iPhone used by one of the assailants in the deadly terror attack in December in San Bernardino, Calif. Apple has appealed a magistrate court order that it assist the government, saying to do so would create a backdoor into its phones that undermines encryption technology.

Siding with Apple are technology companies including Amazon Inc., Microsoft Corp., Facebook Inc. and Google’s parent Alphabet Inc. On Thursday, the government filed a memorandum in the case arguing that Apple would need to assign as few as six workers for as little as two weeks to hack into Syed Farook’s phone.

“This burden, which is not unreasonable, is the direct result of Apple’s deliberate marketing decision to engineer its products so that the government cannot search them, even with a warrant,” government attorneys said in the filing.

Obama will be interviewed at the festival by the editor of the Texas Tribune and also take questions from the audience. South by Southwest, now 30 years old, has grown from an event to highlight local musicians and artists into one of the nation’s larger and more popular technology conferences and film-and-music festivals.

The White House has backed the FBI in its fight with Apple, but has said Obama believes it is vital to balance privacy protections against the needs of law enforcement. Obama has not weighed in on legislation being drafted by Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, and the senior Democrat on the panel, Dianne Feinstein of California, which would require companies to comply with court orders asking for assistance accessing encrypted data.

Apple and other tech firms have said that building backdoors into their encrypted products could put them at a disadvantage to foreign competitors. They have also warned that China or other countries could demand similar cooperation with government investigations.

Kristie Canegallo, the White House deputy chief of staff, said on a conference call with reporters that she didn’t expect Obama to raise the Apple dispute in his remarks. But the town hall format means the question could come from an audience member.

Recruiting Coders

If Obama is confronted on the matter, it won’t be the first time his policies have caused the White House a headache at the Austin festival. In 2014, former NSA contractor Edward Snowden gave a virtual keynote speech from Russia on privacy rights. WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange also spoke remotely to the conference that year.

Still, White House officials believe that engagement with the technology sector is critical, especially if the administration is to recruit talented programmers to help modernize the federal government.

“Cooperation that exists between the government and the tech sector continues beyond the issue of encryption,” Jason Goldman, the White House’s chief digital officer, said on the call with reporters.

In recent years, Obama has hired officials from companies including Microsoft, Alphabet, and Twitter Inc. to help repair the broken HealthCare.gov enrollment system and the byzantine Veterans Affairs claims processing system, among other assignments. The administration hopes the president’s appearance at SXSW can help replenish the ranks of hundreds of technology specialists who put their Silicon Valley careers on hold for public service.

“While I’m there, I’m going to ask everyone for ideas and technologies that can help update our government and our democracy to be as modern and dynamic as America itself,” Obama said his March 5 radio address.

Haley Van Dyck, deputy administrator of U.S. Digital Service, a startup operation within the White House, said the administration wants tech workers to sign up for stints with the federal government of between three months and two years. She likened the effort to the Peace Corps.

“We are working very hard to build a tradition of public service in the tech sector where it hasn’t existed before,” said Van Dyck, who helped develop the mobile strategy for Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.

By Justin Sink

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