White House CIO Deflects on Apple Encryption Debate

Federal CIO Tony Scott

Federal CIO Tony Scott Susan Walsh/AP

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At SXSW, President Obama urged citizens to avoid an “absolutist” stance on encryption. But the White House CIO says he can make an argument for both sides.

For the past several weeks, White House officials have carefully avoided publicly taking sides in the ongoing debate between Apple and the FBI, which ordered the tech giant to help it unlock an iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino shooters.

U.S. Chief Information Officer Tony Scott can “make an argument on both sides,” he told an audience in Washington Tuesday.

While "everybody understands that strong encryption is probably really, really important" and "why backdoors might be a problem as you go down the road,” he said, “on the other hand, we can see society’s interest in being able to go after bad guys.”

Still, “strong encryption is something everyone’s going to get behind,” Scott predicted, with a "narrow set of exceptions.”

Last week, Scott’s boss, President Barack Obama, refused to comment directly on the FBI vs. Apple case, though he told an audience at the SXSW festival in Austin that “you cannot take an absolutist view” on encryption.

The argument that “we can and should, in fact, create black boxes” doesn’t “strike the kind of balance that we have lived with for 200, 300 years,” he said. “And it’s fetishizing our phones above every other value. And that can’t be the right answer.”

Obama added: “I suspect that the answer is going to come down to how do we create a system where the encryption is as strong as possible, the key is as secure as possible, it is accessible by the smallest number of people possible for a subset of issues that we agree are important. How we design that is not something that I have the expertise to do.”