Obama, serious about cybersecurity, also delivers laughs

The president came to the first ever White House cybersecurity summit equipped with a pen -- to sign his executive order -- and plenty of jokes to ease the mood around cyberthreats.

Nick Statt Former Staff Reporter / News
Nick Statt was a staff reporter for CNET News covering Microsoft, gaming, and technology you sometimes wear. He previously wrote for ReadWrite, was a news associate at the social-news app Flipboard, and his work has appeared in Popular Science and Newsweek. When not complaining about Bay Area bagel quality, he can be found spending a questionable amount of time contemplating his relationship with video games.
Nick Statt
3 min read

President Barack Obama signs an executive order on cybersecurity at Stanford University on Friday to promote info-sharing among the private and public sectors. James Martin/CNET

PALO ALTO, Calif. -- President Barack Obama, alongside a slew of White House officials and corporate executives, descended on Stanford University here Friday for a first-of-its-kind summit on cybersecurity and consumer protection.

The president used the opportunity to wax philosophical about the Internet and the need to keep it secure, to exhibit an off-the-cuff style now bubbling back to the surface in the later stages of his second term -- and to surprise the room full of press and tech leaders with a fair bit of humor.

It turns out, for example, that:

Obama bleeds Cardinal red
To help ease the crowd into a discussion of cyberthreats to US infrastructure, identity theft or corporate financial ruin, Obama opened his address with what can only be described as a mix of envy and educational regret.

"I've got to admit, like, I kind of want to go here," Obama said to raucous cheers from the Stanford Memorial Hall's student section. "I was trying to figure out why it is that a really nice place like this is wasted on young people who don't fully appreciate what you got. It's really nice. And everybody here is so friendly and smart, and it's beautiful. And what's there not to like?"

Obama received an undergraduate degree from Columbia University, where there are notably far fewer fountains than at Stanford.

Even the president chooses poor passwords
Obama made history as the first president with a smartphone...well, sort of. When he assumed office in January 2008, the US government engineered a specialized BlackBerry device for Obama -- who was at the time a big fan of the business-savvy cell phone -- to protect it from hackers and external threats. Though his phone was secure, Obama said Friday that his password game was not quite up to snuff.

"And more companies are moving to new, stronger technologies to authenticate user identities, like biometrics -- because it's just too easy for hackers to figure out usernames and passwords, like 'password,'" he said. "Or '12345,'" he added with a pause,"'... 7.'

"Those are some of my previous passwords. I've changed them since then."

Obama gets real about the history of the Internet, tech industry

Obama took time out of his address to retrace the history of Stanford's contributions to the technology industry -- noting how the university has, in one way or another, helped birth Yahoo, Google, Instagram, Cisco, Sun Microsystems and many others.

"According to one study, if all the companies traced back to Stanford graduates formed their own nation, you'd be one of the largest economies in the world," Obama said,"and have a pretty good football team as well."

He also turned up the seriousness a notch to make sure to remind us that in the grand scheme of things, GIFs and selfie sticks and Web culture as a whole are but a blip in the history of humankind.

"After all, we are just getting started. Think about it. Tim Berners-Lee, from his lab in Switzerland, invented the World Wide Web in 1989, which was only 26 years ago," Obama said.

"The great epochs in human history -- the Bronze Age, Iron Age, Agricultural Revolution, Industrial Revolution -- they spanned centuries," he added, forgetting that some people will always remember him for being stuck in the BlackBerry Age.