Bill Gates: Apple's fight with the FBI should start a debate around government data requests

Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates has said there should be a debate into government information requests in light of the feud between the FBI and Apple over access to a suspected terrorist’s iPhone.

The billionaire’s comments, made during an interview with the BBC, came after he was asked whether he thought Apple was right to resist the US government’s demand that it unlock an iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino shooters.

“Should governments be able to access information at all, or should they be blind — that’s essentially what we are talking about,” he told the BBC.

Though earlier reports suggested otherwise, Gates is yet to explicitly state whether he sides with Apple or the FBI.

Gates is the latest powerful tech leader to express an opinion on the heated security debate that has arisen since Apple pushed back against a court order that it help the FBI hack an iPhone 5c belonging to Syed Farook, one of the two attackers who were killed by the police after carrying out a mass shooting in San Bernardino last year.

In an interview with the Financial Times on Monday, Gates dismissed Cook’s claims that helping unlock the phone would set a wider precedent of law-enforcement agencies’ hacking into citizens’ phones.

“This is a specific case where the government is asking for access to information,” Gates said. “They are not asking for some general thing — they are asking for a particular case.

“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.'”

A US judge last week ordered Apple to assist the FBI in its attempt to access encrypted data on Farook’s phone. But Apple argues that doing so would create a dangerous precedent and make all iPhone users less safe. CEO Tim Cook argues that the move “would undermine the very freedoms and liberty our government is meant to protect.”

Silicon Valley executives including Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, and Google CEO Sundar Pichai have endorsed Cook’s decision. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella is yet to comment on the matter, but the Reform Government Surveillance organisation, of which Microsoft is a member, opposes the order.

Cook wrote an open letter last week saying he would fight the FBI over its demand to build what Apple says would be a backdoor in the iPhone.

The FBI wants Apple to remove the limit on the number of times the phone’s passcode can be tried before the data on the phone is automatically erased. It also wants Apple to modify its iOS operating system so passcodes can be input electronically. Apple argues that this workaround would later be open to abuse.

“The government suggests this tool could only be used once, on one phone,” Cook’s letter read. “But that’s simply not true. Once created, the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices. In the physical world, it would be the equivalent of a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks — from restaurants and banks to stores and homes. No reasonable person would find that acceptable.”

FBI Director James Comey published a blog post on the specialist legal site Lawfare on Sunday titled “We Could Not Look the Survivors in the Eye if We Did Not Follow this Lead.”

“The San Bernardino litigation isn’t about trying to set a precedent or send any kind of message,” Comey wrote in the blog. “It is about the victims and justice.”

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