Snowden was speaking from Moscow to the Logan Symposium in Berlin organised by the London-based Centre for Investigative Journalism on Friday and Saturday. Obama was participating in a keynote conversation at the 2016 South by Southwest Interactive festival in Austin, Texas, the first sitting president to grace the stage of an SXSW event.
Obama, responding to a question from Evan Smith, editor-in-chief of The Texas Tribune, said he could not talk directly about the Apple-FBI matter, where the FBI is demanding that Apple produce a modified version of its iOS mobile operating system so that the agency can access information from an iPhone that was used by Syed Rizwan Farook, an employee of the San Bernardino county health department and one of two responsible for the deaths of 14 people in December last year.
The US president tried to walk both sides of the road, characterising the choices at the extremes as being between strong cryptography and no cryptography, saying there was reasonable territory in the centre where cryptography could be strong sometimes and vanish into the ether on other times. At best, this could be described as fanciful thinking.
He used the emotive examples of child pornography and terrorism to push his belief that the government should not be totally shut out of people's devices, saying: "Then how do we apprehend the child pornographer? How do we solve or disrupt a terrorist plot? What mechanisms do we have available to do even simple things like tax enforcement? If in fact you can’t crack that all, if the government can’t get in, then everybody is walking around with a Swiss bank account in their pocket. There has to be some concession to the need to be able to get into that information somehow."
On Friday, Snowden was even more forceful in remarks made during a discussion at Common Cause’s Blueprint for Democracy conference. "The FBI says Apple has the 'exclusive technical means' to unlock the iPhone. Respectfully, that’s bullshit."
He tweeted a link to a blog post on the website of the American Civil Liberties Union which explained exactly how the FBI could have got past the erase function of the device in order to get at the data it says it wants to obtain.
With the next court date for the case set down for March 22, both sides are ratcheting up the rhetoric, with neither taking a backward step.
The Department of Justice, responding to Apple's court submission, has more or less accused the company of skewing the case. In a court submission on Thursday, it said the company had "deliberately raised technological barriers that now stand between a lawful warrant and an iPhone containing evidence related to the terrorist mass murder of 14 Americans.
"Apple alone can remove those barriers so that the FBI can search the phone, and it can do so without undue burden," the submission, on behalf of the FBI, said.
Apple responded by telling assorted media that the submission read more like an indictment. ""In 30 years of practice, I don't think I've ever seen a legal brief that was more intended to smear the other side with false accusations and innuendo, and less intended to focus on the real merits of the case," Apple's main attorney Bruce Sewell said. "I can only conclude the DoJ is so desperate at this point it's thrown all decorum to the winds."
The FBI obtained an order on February 16 asking Apple to help it break into the iPhone 5C in question, When Apple refused to pay heed, the agency asked the issuing court on February 19 to compel the company to comply. Apple has filed a motion asking for the order to be dismissed.
Photo above shows Barack Obama at the 2016 South by Southwest Interactive festival in Austin, Texas.