Last updated: February 23, 2016 6:03 pm

Gates breaks ranks over FBI Apple request

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Bill Gates has broken ranks with Silicon Valley in the stand-off between Apple and the US government, saying technology companies should be forced to co-operate with law enforcement in terrorism investigations.

The Microsoft founder took issue with Tim Cook’s characterisation of the government’s order that Apple help break open the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone as a demand for a “back door”, denying that it would set a wider precedent.

“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,” Mr Gates 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’.”

Apple has been pulled into a war of words with US law enforcement in the last week, after a judge ordered the company to write software that would enable FBI investigators to unlock Syed Rizwan Farook’s iPhone. Mr Cook, Apple’s chief executive, has called the request a “chilling” example of “over-reach” by the US government that would set a “dangerous precedent that threatens everyone’s civil liberties”.

Mr Gates’s stance sets him apart from the rest of the technology industry, including the company he founded. Satya Nadella, Microsoft chief, has not publicly commented on the matter, but a spokesperson for the Seattle-based company pointed to a statement by the Reform Government Surveillance organisation, of which it is a member, opposing the order.

Silicon Valley executives including Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook chief; Jack Dorsey, Twitter founder; and Sundar Pichai, head of Google, have all sided with Mr Cook. National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden called the showdown “the most important tech case in a decade”.

Podcast

Apple versus the FBI

Podcast

Apple has taken a stand against a US court order that it must help the FBI unblock an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters. Ravi Mattu discusses the FBI request and Apple’s response with Sam Jones, FT defence and security editor, and Tim Bradshaw, San Francisco correspondent.

But James Comey, FBI director, has insisted that the case is “quite narrow”.

“We don’t want to break anyone’s encryption or set a master key loose on the land,” Mr Comey wrote in a blog post on Sunday night.

Mr Gates told the FT that there were benefits to the government being able to enforce taxation, stop crime and investigate terror threats, but said there must be rules on when the information can be accessed.

“I hope 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,” he said.

Mr Gates was speaking at the launch of the annual letter from his charitable organisation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, in which he argues that “an energy miracle” will be needed to bring electricity to the one-fifth of the world’s population that does not currently have it, while still reducing carbon emissions to zero.

“Let’s science the expletive-expletive out of this,” he said, quoting Matt Damon’s character in the movie, The Martian. “I don’t know what the expletives are.”

Bill Gates on the FBI versus Apple
 

Q: Is Apple right to be challenging the FBI’s request to open a backdoor to its phones?

There’s no doubt Apple can make this information available and I don’t think there’s any doubt that when the courts eventually rule that they’ll follow whatever the court says to do.

The discussion of do you want the government to be blind on one hand, or if it’s not blind does it have the right safeguards of how that information, when it’s acquired and how it’s used — that’s a good debate.

In my view the benefits to the government of being able to enforce taxation, being able to stop crime, particular things like terrorism with nuclear weapons or biological means, which means a very few number of people are given by innovation the ability to affect millions or billions — I hope that we can have that debate so that the safeguards are built so people don’t opt — and this will be country by country — that hey it’s better off that the government doesn’t access any information.

Q: Would you support a backdoor into Microsoft phones, Google phones, Apple phones as a general principle.

Nobody’s talking about a backdoor so that’s not the right question. This is a specific case where the government is asking for access to information. They’re not asking for some general thing, they are asking for a particular case.

Q: But is Apple right to say that a backdoor, once created in one case, is a backdoor that can be used in the future?

Apple has access to the information. They’re just refusing to provide the access and the courts will tell them whether to provide the access or not. You shouldn’t call the access some special thing. It’s no different than should, if anybody ever been able to tell the phone company to get information; bank records, should anybody be able to get at bank records. There’s no difference between information, the government’s come asking for a specific set of information and let’s say the bank had tied a ribbon around the disk drive and they say ‘don’t make me cut this ribbon, because you’ll make me cut it many times, just because this guy’s such a terrible person’.

Anyway, it’s a simple question of do voters want the government in any case, is there any case where a company should provide the information.

Q: Apple just made it sound like it’s a matter of principle, a broad principle.

Any time a bank is told, hey, turn over a bank account information, as soon as they do that on one person they are admitting they can do it on many people, so yes, they are waiting for a high court to make clear what they should do.

* The headline of the story has been updated to more closely reflect Mr Gates’ comments

Letter in response to this report:

FBI’s request is about more than just this case / From Nuala O’Connor

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