Bill Gates hedges on FBI demand for iPhone access

Microsoft's co-founder treads lightly down the middle road on the sharply divisive matter of Apple breaking into an iPhone tied to the San Bernardino terrorist attack.

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Bill Gates at Harvard Sept 2013
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Bill Gates at Harvard Sept 2013

Bill Gates during an appearance at Harvard in 2013.

Harvard/Screenshot by CNET

On the matter of Apple versus the FBI, Bill Gates is playing it like a politician.

The former Microsoft CEO began the week straddling the divisive issues at the heart of federal investigators' efforts to get Apple to hack into an iPhone used by one of the shooters in the San Bernardino, California, massacre last December.

Apple has staunchly and very publicly stood up to the FBI. It argues that complying with the agency's request would essentially result in a backdoor or master key to millions of iPhones, a notion that Gates downplayed.

"Nobody's talking about a backdoor," Gates said in a Financial Times report published Monday evening. "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."

Those comments run counter to the prevailing current on the issue in Silicon Valley. Other tech leaders have lent their support to Apple's resistance to bypassing the security shielding data in an iPhone 5C tied to the shooting that left 14 dead and 22 injured. The FBI hopes the phone's contents will reveal more about the terrorists' activities leading up to the massacre.

The stakes here are high, with the case pitting issues of national security against regard for the privacy of everyday consumers. The standoff also turns up the heat on the simmering tensions over encryption -- the technology that scrambles information to prevent unauthorized readers from seeing it -- between Washington and Silicon Valley.

Encryption can shield the communications of terrorists and criminals, but it also protects everything from e-commerce transactions to the activities of political dissidents. Tech companies have become increasingly diligent about including encryption in products and services in the wake of revelations about US government surveillance programs from documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

Cupertino, California-based Apple is also grappling with the Department of Justice over attempts to extract data from locked iPhones in about a dozen other cases, according to The Wall Street Journal. Details of those cases have not been disclosed publicly, but sources told the Journal that the cases do not involve terrorism.

Stepping carefully around any definitive stance, Gates did at times seem to support the government's side in the San Bernardino case. He likened the matter to law enforcement inquiries to other sorts of businesses. "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.'"

The FBI has contended that its request is limited to the one iPhone in question. FBI Director James Comey wrote Sunday, "We don't want to break anyone's encryption or set a master key loose on the land."

Apple says that with software, it's not so simple.

Rather than put the onus on Apple, though, Gates put it on the legal system.

"The court will tell them [Apple] whether to provide the access or not," Gates said in the Financial Times story. "They are waiting for a high court to make clear what they should do."

Apple has until Friday to respond formally to a court order that it cooperate in providing access to the phone's data. A hearing on the matter is set for March 22.

On Tuesday, Gates took issue with headlines that suggested that he was siding with the FBI in the case. It's all about striking the right balance, he said in an interview with Bloomberg. "Clearly the government has taken information historically and used it in ways we didn't expect, going all the way back to say the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover," Gates said, but "I do believe there are sets of safeguards where the government shouldn't have to be completely blind."

Meanwhile, tech CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Sundar Pichai of Google and Jack Dorsey of Twitter have more definitively supported Apple CEO Tim Cook for refusing to break into the phone. The American Civil Liberties Union and the digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation have also supported Cook's position.

Gates said rules need to be created for when information can be accessed.

"I hope," he said in the Financial Times interview, "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."

Microsoft representatives declined to comment. Apple did not respond to requests for comment.

Update, February 23 at 10:47 a.m. PT: Incorporated additional information from the Financial Times report, as well as Tuesday's Bloomberg interview with Gates.