President Barack Obama was asked about the encryption fight, as personified by the legal fight between the FBI and Apple, and his response is an excellent example of what happens when political will clashes with technology reality.
The president made his comments at South by Southwest (SxSW), where he did a panel with Texas Tribune editor Evan Smith. You can watch that panel in its entirety below. Note that there are 32 minutes of wait at the beginning—skip ahead accordingly. Also note that the interview covers much more than just this one issue and it's worth the watch.
I strongly disagree with the president on this issue, but his comments offered me a moment of clarity that might be worth exploring.
People with strong opinions on the subject of privacy, encryption, and law enforcement come down in four camps that I can identify.
Camp 1: People who believe that the government has no business snooping into our digital stuff, ever, so yay encryption!
Camp 2: People who believe encryption is necessary to protect ourselves from legions of malicious actors on the global stage, and understand that encryption is binary. You either have unbreakable encryption or you have pointless encryption.
Camp 3: People who believe that privacy is important, but believe it is equally (or more) important for law enforcement to be able to get information through a lawful warrant. This camp believes a compromise with the tech world should be reached, suggesting they don't grasp the above-mentioned binary nature of encryption.
Camp 4: People who are pro law-enforcement and pro-national security as viewed through a lens where the binary aspect of encryption is irrelevant. For many members of this camp, if encryption is binary then it's got to go, because nothing is more important than law-enforcement and the subset of national security that is our good guys tracking down the bad guys.
Obviously individuals will have some overlap, and I don't mean for my little list to be some kind of absolute classification. But I believe strongly that understanding people who disagree with you is key to having conversations, and recognizing where someone is coming from is a key component to understanding them.
Me, I'm in Camp 2. I fancy Apple CEO Tim Cook is in that camp, as well, as is former CIA and NSA Director General Michael Hayden. Encryption experts that I've studied over the years appear to be in this camp, too.
Representatives Trey Gowdy (R-SC) and Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) are likely in Camp 4, based on their public comments.
President Obama and Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates appear to be in Camp 3. I'd guess that FBI Director James Comey is in that camp, as well.
Next: The President's Stance and Why He's Wrong