Update Turns out Bill Gates, Microsoft co-founder and one of the all-time tech-industry greats, has not taken the FBI’s side in the government’s dispute with Apple over the unlocking of a terrorist’s iPhone.
In the initial interview, Gates disputed Apple’s assertion that the federal government was asking for the company to create a backdoor for all iPhones, a move that Apple claimed could endanger the privacy of millions of iPhone owners. A federal judge has ordered Apple to create a software workaround that would help the feds open the locked iPhone owned by Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the two shooters in December’s terrorist attack in San Bernardino. Apple vowed to resist the court order.
“Nobody is talking about a backdoor,” Gates said in the FT interview. “This is a specific case where the government is asking for access to information. They are not asking for some general thing. They are asking for a particular case.”
As a result, many news sites posted stories about the interview with some version of “Bill Gates Backs FBI” as the headline (GeekWire’s original headline was “Gates comes out against Apple, critical of company’s arguments for refusing to hack terrorist phone”).
In the Bloomberg interview, Gates seemed intent to stake out a much more neutral position.
“I do believe that with the right safeguards, there are cases where the government, on our behalf, like stopping terrorism, which could get worse in the future, that that is valuable. But striking that balance–clearly the government has taken information historically and used it in ways we didn’t expect, going all the way back to say the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover. I’m hoping now we can have the discussion. I do believe there are sets of safeguards where the government shouldn’t have to be completely blind.”
Later in the interview, Gates was asked what he thought should be done in this case.
“The courts are going to decide this. And I think Apple said that whatever the final court decision is, they’ll abide by. In the meantime, that gives us this opportunity to get the discussion and these issues will be decided in Congress. The Patriot Act, how that gets evolved. You don’t want to just take the minute after a terrorist event and swing that direction, nor do you want to in general completely swing away from government access when you get some abuse being revealed. You want to strike that balance that the United States leads in setting example.”
Apple and the federal government are locked in a public-relations war over the phone. Overall, the government appears to be winning. Donald Trump, the tycoon and candidate for U.S. president, has called for a public boycott of Apple until it gives in. In tech circles, Apple holds the advantage. Google, Twitter and Microsoft, the software giant Gates founded, are among some of the companies that have publicly come out in support of Apple’s position.
On Monday, Mark Zuckerberg, cofounder of Facebook, said during the Mobile World Congress conference in Barcelona: “We’re sympathetic with Apple on this one. We believe in encryption. I expect it’s not the right thing to try to block that from the mainstream products people want to use. And I think it’s not going to be the right regulatory or economic policy to put in place.”
Gates is scheduled to do a live YouTube interview Tuesday morning at 10 a.m. PT. It may not be a bad idea to listen in as he could comment more on the issue.