In the days since the FBI revealed it needs Apple’s help to unlock an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters, many have taken sides in what the company, resisting the request, has framed as a debate about fundamental civil liberties. Tech companies such as Facebook, Google and Twitter have sided with Apple, as has NSA leaker Edward Snowden; Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and more than half of respondents in a Pew poll disagreed, saying Apple should help with the investigation.
Now, one of the tech industry’s greatest titans has spoken — and turned out to be a contrarian of sorts. In comments to the Financial Times, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates has defied much of Silicon Valley, implying that Apple should provide access to the locked iPhone.
“Apple has access to the information,” he said. “They’re just refusing to provide the access. … You shouldn’t call the access some special thing.”
Even after Apple chief executive Tim Cook said unlocking the phone was “an unprecedented step which threatens the security of our customers,” Gates compared the FBI’s request to more pedestrian ones.
“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,” Gates said. “There’s no difference between information.” He offered this analogy: “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.’”
Gates’s comments come as the war between Apple and the FBI over the iPhone — used by Syed Farook, who killed 14 people in San Bernardino in December with his wife, Tashfeen Malik, before the couple was killed by police — grows ever hotter. FBI Director James Comey made an unusual public plea for help.
“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,” Comey wrote on the website Lawfare, a prominent national security law blog. “That’s it. We don’t want to break anyone’s encryption or set a master key loose on the land.”
Not long after Comey’s request, Cook emailed Apple employees to explain why Apple is opposing the government’s request for help, which is being mulled by a federal court.
“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,” Cook wrote, as TechCrunch reported. “At stake is the data security of hundreds of millions of law-abiding people, and setting a dangerous precedent that threatens everyone’s civil liberties.”
Building what’s been called a “backdoor” into the iPhone, Cook’s also said, would be really, really bad.
“Yes, it is certainly possible to create an entirely new operating system to undermine our security features as the government wants,” an online message called “Answers to your questions about Apple and security” read. “But it’s something we believe is too dangerous to do. The only way to guarantee that such a powerful tool isn’t abused and doesn’t fall into the wrong hands is to never create it.”
Gates implied that such rhetoric was overblown.
“This is a specific case where the government’s asking for access to information,” he said. “They’re not asking for some general thing — they’re asking for a particular case.”