In Apple vs. FBI dispute, Bill Gates calls for balance

Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates is offering a more nuanced view of the FBI's request for an iPhone backdoor.

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters
Microsoft Corporation co-founder Bill Gates speaks during an interview in New York, Feb. 22, 2016.

Standing apart from his tech sector peers, Microsoft’s Bill Gates is defending the US government in its ongoing dispute with Apple over iPhone privacy, calling for a more nuanced understanding of privacy and safety.

In an interview with the Financial Times published Monday, Mr. Gates addressed Apple’s refusal to create a software that would enables the FBI to break into the locked iPhone of one of the San Bernardino attackers.

Although he clarified that he doesn't explicitly support the FBI's position during an appearance on Bloomberg TV Tuesday morning, Gates is still taking a much more moderate approach than many of his fellow tech moguls.

"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," he said in the initial interview.

In a further discussion of the matter with Bloomberg, Gates said he is “disappointed” by reports that he backs the FBI over Apple. “That doesn’t state my view on this,” he said.

“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,” he said. 

“But striking that balance,” he added, may be a complicated matter, given the American government's track record for abusing private information, such as during the tenure of J. Edgar Hoover.

This current dispute began last week, when a federal judge ordered Apple to modify its software to make it easier for the FBI to retrieve data from the locked iPhone 5C used by Syed Rizwan Farook, who was killed with his wife in a gun battle with police after fatally shooting 14 people in San Bernardino, Calif., two months ago.

But Apple CEO Tim Cook has pushed back, arguing that allowing the FBI such access would be a slippery slope toward privacy infringement on a broader level. Other high-profile Silicon Valley executives agree. Among them are Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, and Google CEO Sundar Pichai.

Mr. Cook addressed Apple employees in a memo Monday, saying that “the data security of hundreds of millions of law-abiding people” is at stake, and that complying with the FBI would be “setting a dangerous precedent that threatens everyone’s civil liberties.”

“This case is about much more than a single phone or a single investigation, so when we received the government’s order we knew we had to speak out,” he wrote.

Gates, on the other hand, likened the scenario to allowing the government to get ahold of bank statements or phone records: “Let’s say the bank had tied a ribbon round the disk drive and said, ‘Don’t make me cut this ribbon because you’ll make me cut it many times.’”

The FBI denies the claim that access to the San Bernardino shooter’s phone will be a far-reaching assault to encryption in general.

"We simply want the chance, with a search warrant, to try to guess the terrorist's passcode without the phone essentially self-destructing and without it taking a decade to guess correctly. That’s it," FBI director James Comey said in a blog Sunday. "We don't want to break anyone’s encryption or set a master key loose on the land."

Meanwhile, protesters across the world are rallying behind Cook. Digital rights group Fight for the Future has planned demonstrations in locations including San Francisco, Los Angeles, Apple's Silicon Valley headquarters, and the FBI's headquarters in Washington, D.C.

The nation as a whole is divided on the issue. According to a survey conducted by Pew Research Center t this week, 51 percent of respondents said Apple should unlock the iPhone to help the ongoing FBI investigation, while 38 percent said the opposite. Eleven percent of people offered no opinion.

As the dispute continues, Gates offers an optimistic view: The discord between Apple and the government has opened up the floor for a much-needed discussion on the wider issue of the balance between privacy and counterterrorism.

“The courts are going to decide this,” he said on Bloomberg, but “in the meantime, that gives us this opportunity to get the discussion [started]."

“The minute after a terrorist event," is the wrong time to kick off such a discussion, he said, acknowledging the tendency of a frightened populace to "swing in the direction" of surrendering civil liberties in exchange for a feeling of security. "Nor do you want to completely swing away from government access" as soon as an instance of abuse is revealed, he added. 

"You want to strike that balance."

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