UPDATE: In an interview with Bloomberg TV this morning, Bill Gates said he was “blindsided” by and “disappointed” with reports that he sides with the FBI in its dispute with Apple over unlocking an iPhone connected to the San Bernardino killings. He said: “That doesn’t state my view on this. 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 is valuable.” He called for a healthy debate on the issue and said that we should strike a balance between privacy rights and legitimate security concerns. Gates also noted that the government has historically abused its powers, citing the case of former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.
While many of Silicon Valley’s heavyweights have expressed support for Apple in its battle with the government, Gates stunned observers by appearing to take the side of the FBI in initial reports last night.
“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,” the Microsoft cofounder told the Financial Times. “It is no different than [the question of] should anybody ever have been able to tell the phone company to get information, should anybody be able to get at bank 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’.”
And now it also appears that Gates’s assertion that law enforcement is asking Apple to unlock an iPhone only in this particular case is incorrect. A few hours after the FT published Gate’s comments, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Justice Department is also seeking court orders to force Apple to extract data from 12 other iPhones in cases unrelated to San Bernardino. These other 12 cases do not involve terrorism, notes the WSJ and adds that “Privacy advocates are likely to seize on the cases’ existence as proof the government aims to go far beyond what prosecutors have called the limited scope of the current public court fight over a locked iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters.”
It’s not known if Gates was aware of the other 12 cases that have come to light. Speaking about the government’s ability to access data, Gates told the FT that he believes there need to be rules in place about when and how the government is able to access a person’s data and that he hopes “that we have that debate so that the safeguards are built and so people do not opt—and this will be country by country—[to say] it is better that the government does not have access to any information.”
The day after Cook’s open letter, one of the notable absences of tech CEOs weighing in was current Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, who as of today has yet to address the issue directly. He did however retweet a tweet by Microsoft president and chief legal officer Brad Smith, in which Smith linked to a Reform Government Surveillance group statement regarding encryption and security, signaling at least some support for Cook. It’s unknown if Nadella and Gates have discussed their stances on the issue.