Bill Gates Weighs In on Encryption Battle Between Apple, FBI

Microsoft co-founder has a different take than his Silicon Valley counterparts.

February 23, 2016, 10:15 AM

— -- Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates is wading into Apple's encryption battle with federal authorities, offering a different take than many of his Silicon Valley counterparts.

Gates said he thinks there is a way for Apple to cooperate with federal authorities to unlock an iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino shooters and said he believes it's possible to turn over the information without creating a so-called backdoor to crack every iPhone, according to an interview published today by the Financial Times.

"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’re asking for a particular case," Gates said in the interview. He said the government is only looking for "a specific set of information" and not a master key to break into other phones.

"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," he said. "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' comments are a departure from many of his Silicon Valley counterparts who have rallied around Apple's decision to push back against a federal order to unlock the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino, California, shooters, fearing compliance could set a dangerous precedent allowing the government and hackers to break into smartphones.

Speaking at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona Monday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said he was "sympathetic" to Apple's battle and said he doesn't believe "building backdoors is the way to go," according to The New York Times.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai, who has worked closely with the company's open source Android operating system, was an early supporter of Apple's battle against the federal order.

In a series of tweets last week, Pichai warned that creating a backdoor for law enforcement to bypass security measures could compromise users' privacy.

"We build secure products to keep your information safe and we give law enforcement access to data based on valid legal orders," he wrote. "But that’s wholly different than requiring companies to enable hacking of customer devices & data. Could be a troubling precedent."

Jan Koum, the CEO of WhatsApp, the Facebook-owned encrypted messaging app, said he "couldn't agree more" with a letter posted Tuesday night by Apple CEO Tim Cook explaining Apple's stance on privacy.

"I have always admired Tim Cook for his stance on privacy and Apple's efforts to protect user data," Koum wrote on his Facebook page. "We must not allow this dangerous precedent to be set. Today our freedom and our liberty is at stake."

Brad Smith, Microsoft's president and chief legal officer, tweeted a link to a statement from Reform Government Surveillance, which is a coalition of tech companies, including Microsoft, which monitors government surveillance issues.

"Reform Government Surveillance companies believe it is extremely important to deter terrorists and criminals and to help law enforcement by processing legal orders for information in order to keep us all safe," the statement said. "But technology companies should not be required to build in backdoors to the technologies that keep their users’ information secure. RGS companies remain committed to providing law enforcement with the help it needs while protecting the security of their customers and their customers’ information."

In a letter posted last week, Cook said the FBI is essentially asking Apple to build a new operating system that could be installed on an iPhone recovered from an investigation. Such software does not exist today but if it did, Cook said, there would be no way to guarantee it would only be used for investigations, putting the privacy of millions of Americans at risk.

"The government would have us remove security features and add new capabilities to the operating system, allowing a passcode to be input electronically," he said. "This would make it easier to unlock an iPhone by 'brute force' trying thousands or millions of combinations with the speed of a modern computer."