Obama calls on tech industry at SXSW to help solve nation’s problems – USA TODAY
AUSTIN â President Obama called on the tech industry Friday to help solve some of Washington’s thorniestÂ problems â from upgrading outdatedÂ federal networks to connecting rural classrooms to resolving the national privacy vs. security debate sparked by the current legal battleÂ between Apple and the FBI.
Speaking to a theater filled with aboutÂ 2,000 techies, engineers and dot.com leaders gathered for theÂ annual South by Southwest Interactive Festival, Obama urged the audience to think about putting their vast skills to work improving civic life.
“The reason Iâm hereÂ is to recruit all of you,” he said. “We can start coming up withÂ new platforms, new ideas across disciplines and across skill sets to solve some of the bigÂ problems weâre facing today.”
Obama was in AustinÂ for the opening day of SXSW,Â a 10-dayÂ interactive/film/music gathering thatÂ draws more than 80,000 participants, including some of the countryâs most successful and talented tech industry leaders.Â Obama is the first sitting U.S. president to attend the 30-year-old gathering. Michelle Obama is scheduled to speak here on Wednesday.
Asked aboutÂ his administrationâs battle with Apple over whether the tech giant should be forced to write new code to unlock the San Bernardino killerâs iPhone, Obama said he wouldn’t comment specifically on the case.Â The Justice Department has been locked in a heated legal battle with Apple in a California federal court to unlock the phone. Apple has opposed a court-order to unlock the phone, claiming doing so it would put millions of other phones at risk.
On the broader issue of privacy rights,Â Obama, who trained as a constitutional lawyer, said he tended to lean more on protecting civil liberties but saidÂ U.S. citizens need to be prepared toÂ make concessions on their privacy for the sake of security, the way they endure airport screenings or DUI checkpoints. Â “This notion that somehow data is different and can be walled off from those other trade-offs we make, I believe, is incorrect,” he said.
He cautioned against takingÂ an “absolutist” view on the issue and calledÂ on tech leaders to help come up with a solution that balances the needs of law enforcement with privacy concerns. Â “Weâre going to need the tech community to help us solve this problem,” Obama said.
In aÂ 50-minuteÂ conversation with Evan Smith, editor in chief of the Texas Tribune, Obama touted tech-related initiatives started during his tenure, such as the U.S. Digital Service, a White House group tasked with upgrading government technology that recruits from Facebook and other tech giants.
He pointed to the failure of the Affordable Care Act website as anÂ example of government’s outdated systems andÂ said that controversialÂ collapse led to the creation of the U.S. Digital Service.
“This was a little embarrassing for me,” Obama said. “My entire campaignÂ was based on having cool technology.”
Attendees, most of whomÂ had won a ticket to the event via an online lottery, began lining up outside the Long Center for the Performing Arts in central AustinÂ more than two hours before the event.Â The president’s visit was announced just nine days ago, catching many conference-goers by surprise. On the way to the event, Obama and his motorcade stopped for tacos at Torcy’s Tacos, a popularÂ Austin-based chain.
Lamora Lindsay-Prince, from New York,Â was in Austin to attend tech sessions and network, not sit in on a presidential chat. But she won a ticket and cleared her calendar Friday to attend. “You never get a moment like this again,” she said. “It shows he has a cool side. He’s relate-able.”
SXSW organizers had been in talks with the White House for years but the two could never settle on a date until Friday, said Hugh Forrest, director of SXSW Interactive. Obamaâs tech savviness â he has active Twitter and Facebook accounts â made him a good fit for the conference, he said.Â âObama is probably the most tech-proficient president weâve ever had,â Forrest said.