Policy

Obama Backs iPhone Searches, But Not ‘Willy-Nilly’ Access

Certain Criminal Cases Should be the Exceptions

Obama, at the SXSW event in Austin, Texas, weighs in on the dispute over iPhone searches in criminal cases.  (Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for SXSW)

President Barack Obama believes law enforcement should be able to force Apple to unlock iPhones when investigating certain criminal cases, but he cautioned against “willy-nilly” searches of mobile devices.  

Obama’s comments were among his most substantive on the ongoing debate about Apple’s dispute with the Justice Department, which wants the technology behemoth to unlock an iPhone used by one of the shooters in last year's mass workplace killing in San Bernardino, Calif. His administration has been trying to help bring about a resolution, but so far as failed to do so.  

The White House has tried to avoid weighing in on the specifics of the case, but Obama’s comments Friday at the South By Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, make clear he believes Apple has a responsibility to unlock the device. "If [law enforcement officials] can't get in,” he said of iPhones, “then everyone is walking around with a Swiss bank account in their pocket."  

The president warned against “fetishizing our phones above every other value,” saying “that can't be the right answer."  

Notably, Obama said he comes down "way on the civil liberties side" of the debate, meaning he agrees with those who believe the data on iPhones should be protected at all costs.  

Stressing that his role as president means he has to turn over every possible leaf to keep Americans safe, he argued “there has to be some concessions" that allow the federal government to gain access to iPhones in some criminal cases.  

Still, Obama said he is intent on ensuring the federal government cannot simply go looking "willy-nilly" inside individuals’ iPhones "without oversight or probable cause.”  

Though some might criticize Obama for making arguments on both sides of the debate, he contended Friday that “you cannot take an absolutist view on this.”  

Contact Bennett at johnbennett@cqrollcall.com and follow him on Twitter at @BennettJohnT.

Roll Call Race Ratings Map: Ratings for Every House and Senate Race in 2016 Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.