Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates said that there’s no black-and-white answer to Apple's ongoing battle with the FBI over encryption. In fact, he said there’s a way to make both parties happy.
Apple has resisted cooperating with federal authorities to unlock an iPhone belonging to one of the perpetrators of the San Bernardino shootings that occurred late last year. But in a published interview, Gates said he believes it's possible to turn over the information without creating a so-called backdoor to crack every iPhone.
"Nobody’s talking about a backdoor," Gates (pictured above) told the Financial Times in an interview published today. "This is a specific case where the government is asking for access to information. They’re not asking for some general thing, they’re asking for a particular case."
Here's the backstory: On December 2, Syed Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, shot at people at a holiday gathering for the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health. The couple killed 14 people and seriously wounded 20 others. Later that day, Farook and his wife were killed in a shootout with police. Since the attack, authorities have been going through their belongings, including their smartphones, trying to determine their motives and whether they were part of a larger terrorist plot.
Just One Phone Needed
In the interview with the Financial Times, Gates said that the government is not requesting carte blanche to break into any phone it wants, but rather specific information about the contents of one phone. Since the report appeared in the Financial Times, Gates has backed away from reports suggesting that he supports the government on the issue.
But by not unequivocally supporting Apple, Gates broke ranks with many other Silicon Valley leaders, who have backed Apple's decision to resist a federal order to unlock Farook's iPhone. They contend that doing so could set a dangerous precedent of letting the government break into smartphones, making the devices more vulnerable to hackers.
Gates said the government’s request of Apple is no different from asking for data from phone companies or banks. "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,'" he said.
Apple has dug in its heels against U.S. law enforcement since earlier this month when a judge ordered the company to write software that would enable FBI investigators to unlock Farook’s iPhone.
Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, responded by calling the request a chilling example of over-reach by authorities that would set a "dangerous precedent that threatens everyone’s civil liberties." He added that such software does not exist today, but if it did, there would be no way to guarantee it would only be used for criminal investigations not surveillance.
Companies Behind Apple
Other leaders of big tech companies have been more sympathetic to Apple’s plight. Google has supported Apple’s battle against the federal order, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told an audience at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week that he doesn’t believe building backdoors to private data is a wise idea. Jan Koum, the CEO of WhatsApp, the Facebook-owned encrypted messaging app, also said he agreed with Apple's stance on privacy.
And Brad Smith, Microsoft's president and chief legal officer, retweeted a statement from Reform Government Surveillance, a coalition of tech companies, including Microsoft that monitors government surveillance issues. The statement said that tech companies shouldn’t be required to build backdoors to the technologies that keep their users’ information secure.