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

Posted March 12, 2016 at 11:46am

   

A guest uses an iPhone to take a picture while President Barack Obama speaks during an event in the East Room of the White House (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
A guest uses an iPhone to take a picture while President Barack Obama speaks during an event in the East Room of the White House (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

President Barack Obama believes law enforcement officials 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 San Bernardino shooters. 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.  

But, saying 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 the case of 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.