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15 March 2016

Between a rock and a hard place (to get into)

Written by: Justin Westcott, General Manager at Edelman

Consumer Trends & Insight, Government Affairs, Technology

Greetings from SXSW 2016. For those of you wondering what the hell SXSW is, well it is an annual culture and trade event in Austin Texas. Now in its 30th year, the 10-day event mashes up the best talent, opinion and content from the music, film and technology sectors. The only place where you can see President Obama, Jake Gyllenhaal, Max Levchin and Bloc Party in one day.

This is my first trip here, and will not be my last. I will leave the show this year with regret that I left it so long to attend. This is the best event I have attended for fostering connections that will lead, I believe, to creative outcomes.

President Obama knew just how rare an opportunity it is to gather so many people in one place that have the power to create solutions to global problems. He attended to give the keynote address and recruit the audience to the US government’s mission. No easy feat after Edelman research, in partnership with SXSW Interactive, found that 61% of attendees believe the tech industry is better placed to find solutions to societal issues than the government. As he put it “the country needs you (the audience at SXSW) to solve some of the hard challenges the country faces”. He received some slack in the media for missing Nancy Regans’ funeral. Yet despite being an outgoing President he still has his eyes on the future and not the past.

Talking of the future, it was inevitable that the question about the growing Apple versus FBI case would come up. An issue which I believe falls between a rock and hard place. Governments have demanded better security via encryption to protect data and mission critical infrastructure. But, by its design encryption prevents access to data; data that could belong to terrorists, extremists or criminals. Thus, the Governments demand to Apple for access, and the conundrum the industry is now in.

As a father, I know I would want a responsible government to have this access, yet I also do not want our technology to be compromised as a result. A backdoor to an encrypted system is a vulnerability. For every responsible usage by Government to access, there will be an agency out there that would want to use it with malice. You either encrypt fully or you don’t, as soon as you give out keys you’ve created weakness.

Should the US government manage to force the hand of the US technology companies there would then be no level playing field. It would lead to a “them and us” scenario; those with technology with “holes” in it, and those with truly impenetrable encryption. To my mind, this world would not be a safer place.

I do think Apple has done the right thing in taking a strong stance, and should take this all the way to the Supreme court, not least because it is a debate that should happen in public and not behind closed doors. It is an issue that has a long way to go, but the results of which are far ranging and could have a profound impact on the industry and global society.

It really is an issue stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Full results of The Democratization of Responsibility, Edelman’s survey with SXSW Interactive, can be found here.

Image: a katz /

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