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Obama Cheers, Challenges Tech Elite at SXSW

AUSTIN, Texas (CN) - President Barack Obama sided with law enforcement in the ongoing controversy over official access to encrypted devices, telling an audience of tech executives and fans that the threats the government is trying to address "are real."

Appearing before an audience of more than 2,000 at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas on Friday, the president's remarks during a question and answer session with The Texas Tribune's Evan Smith, were his most extended to date on an issue currently being considered in federal court.

Apple is challenging the government's request that it help the FBI access information on a cellphone that belong to one of the participants in an attack in San Bernardino, Calif. in December that left 14 people dead.

The president declined to comment specifically on the court case, but under Smith's deft questioning, he spoke at length about the issue of striking a balance between privacy rights and the needs of law enforcement.

"If, technologically, it is possible to make an impenetrable device or system, where the encryption is so strong that there is no key, there is no door at all, then how do we apprehend the child pornographer? How do we disrupt a terrorist plot?" Obama said.

"My conclusion so far is that you cannot take an absolutist view on this," the president said.

"If your argument is strong encryption, no matter what ... that I think does not strike the kind of balance that we have lived with for 200, 300 years," he said.

The president's appearance was timed to kickoff the interactive portion of South by Southwest, and he is the first sitting president to visit the festival in its 30-year history.

During his remarks, Obama said while the changes wrought by technology "offer us enormous opportunities" they are also "very disruptive and unsettling."

"They empower individuals to do things that they could have never dreamed of before, but they also empower folks who are very dangerous to spread dangerous messages," the president said.

"Part of my challenge since I've been president is trying to find ways in which our government can be a part of the positive change that's taking place and can help convene and catalyze folks in the private sector and the non-profit sector to be part of the broader civic community in tackling some of our biggest challenges," he said.

The president then went on to discuss the ways he believes the government has sought to make use of technology, and how it's worked to make digital platforms work better.

As an example he pointed to technology that has streamlined the process of applying for a student loan, and said today those approaching retirement can easily apply for social security online.

But he said more needs to be done.

"The reason I'm here, is to recruit all of you," the president said. "How can we start coming up with new platforms, new ideas, new approaches, across disciplines and across skillsets, to solve some of the big problems we are facing today?"

"With all the talent that is out there, our government is not working ... and our politics isn't working as well as it should," he said. "The only way we are going to solve it is to make sure we are getting citizens involved in ways that we haven't up until now."

Smith noted the challenge of bringing together the tech industry and the government, which have very different cultures. "Government is big and bloated ... tech is sleek and streamlined," he said.

Obama acknowledged that the initial software failure of the healthcare.gov website was an example of "bloated, risk-averse" government.

He said the website's failure caused him to bring in a "swat team" of the best software engineers from some of the biggest companies to fix it. This led to the creation of the U.S. Digital Service Agency to redesign and improve government technology and public service systems.

"We want to create a pipeline where there's a continuous flow of talent that is helping to shape the government," he said.

As Smith and the president continued to talk, their conversation broadened.

The newspaper editor mentioned that many people in Texas are anti-government and believe it cannot do anything good for people.

The president didn't shrink from the challenge.

"Every day the government is delivering for everybody in this room, whether you know it or not," Obama said. "I can find the fiercest libertarian in the room who despises every level of government, thinks it's all corrupt, but they're checking the weather on their phone, and lo and behold, it turns out that there's a government satellite out there that is facilitating that."

"Part of our task is to tell a better story about what government does," he said.

But the president went on to say popular culture and the media are also partly responsible for people's cynical view of the government.

Pointing to the global financial crisis, Obama said the "financial system is much more stable than it used to be" and "too big to fail ... is much less likely."

When Smith asked why more people don't know that, the president said it's because the "cynical view" is much more interesting.

Obama also addressed ways his administration is trying to solve the so-called "digital divide" in the United States that hinders civic participation in some communities due to a lack of access to technologies like Wi-Fi and mobile devices.

He noted that the 2009 Recovery Act included funding to improve access to broadband and Wi-Fi across the country, and also pointed to efforts like his ConnectEd and Open eBooks initiative that are intended, respectively, to ensure 99 percent of students have access to next-generation broadband by 2018, and to provide access to ebooks to children and youth from low-income families.

But the president said government initiatives can only go so far, and that the private sector also needs to step up and supplement what the government is doing, "These are solvable problems, but it is not a matter of us passively waiting for somebody else to solve it," he said.

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