US President Barack Obama has said mobile devices should be built in a way that allows government investigators to access them in the event of a terrorist attack or to enforce tax laws.
Apple and the FBI are currently engaged in a legal dispute over the iPhone belonging to one of the perpetrators of a mass shooting in San Bernardino in December, although Obama did not directly comment on this because the case is still ongoing.
But he made clear that despite his commitment to Americans' privacy and civil liberties, a balance was needed to allow some government intrusion if necessary.
Tech industry executives recently claimed that the case may encourage smartphone manufacturers to bolster their efforts to engineer safeguards against government intrusion, the opposite effect that the government hopes to achieve from the case.
"If technologically it is possible to make an impenetrable device or system where the encryption is so strong that there is no key, there's no door at all, then how do we apprehend the child pornographer, how do we solve or disrupt a terrorist plot?" Obama said.
"What mechanisms do we have available to even do simple things like tax enforcement, because if in fact you can't crack that at all, government can't get in, then everybody is walking around with a Swiss bank account in their pocket."
Last month, the FBI obtained a court order requiring Apple to write new software and take other measures to disable passcode protection and allow access to the San Bernadino shooter’s iPhone.
Apple, which declined to comment on Obama's remarks, has not complied. It said the government request would create a ‘back door’ to phones that could be abused by criminals and governments, and that Congress has not given the Justice Department authority to make such a demand.
The President acknowledged scepticism about the government in the wake of the revelations about US surveillance programs by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who recently said the FBI did not even need Apple to gain access to the phone.
But he said that a compromise that respected civil liberties and protected security had to be found. That solution would likely be a system with strong encryption and a secure ‘key’ that is accessible to the ‘smallest number of people possible’ for issues that were agreed to be important.
"Setting aside the specific case between the FBI and Apple... we're going to have to make some decisions about how do we balance these respective risks," Obama said. "My conclusion so far is you cannot take an absolutist view."