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Bill Gates Is Backing the FBI in Its Case Against Apple (Updated)

The Microsoft billionaire signaled his support in an interview.

Asa Mathat

Microsoft co-founder and billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates is backing the Federal Bureau of Investigation in its legal battle against Apple over encryption in an iPhone used by one of the shooters in December’s San Bernardino attacks.

In an interview with the Financial Times published late Monday night, Gates dismissed the idea that granting the FBI access would set a meaningful legal precedent, arguing that the FBI is “not asking for some general thing, [it is] asking for a particular case.”

Gates goes on:

“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.’”

Update: In an interview with Bloomberg’s TV network this morning, Gates takes issue with the FT story, but it’s not entirely clear whether he is walking back his comments, or simply doesn’t like the headline and other packaging around them. After a Bloomberg anchor suggests that Gates was “blindsided” by the FT headline, Gates says the following:

“I was disappointed, because that doesn’t state my view on this. I do believe that with the right safeguards, there are cases where the government, on our behalf — like stopping terrorism, which could get worse in the future — that that is valuable. But striking that balance — clearly the government [has] taken information, historically, and used it in ways that we didn’t expect, going all the way back, say, to the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover. So I’m hoping now we can have the discussion. I do believe there are sets of safeguards where the government shouldn’t have to be completely blind.”

And in a response to a follow-up question about the specifics of the FBI/Apple dispute, Gates offered this: “The courts are going to decide this. … In the meantime, that gives us this opportunity to get [in] the discussion. And these issues will be decided in Congress.”

You can see the full exchange in the video at the bottom of this post.

Microsoft communications chief Frank X. Shaw declined to comment on the news. Gates started scaling back his role at Microsoft in 2006, and he ultimately stepped aside entirely in 2008. More recently he has been serving as a more informal technology adviser to CEO Satya Nadella.

Gates’s FBI endorsement is the latest chapter of the encryption fight that has been making headlines since last week. Last Tuesday, a federal judge ordered Apple to comply with the FBI’s request to access data on an iPhone 5c used by one of the San Bernardino shooters, Syed Farook. Apple CEO Tim Cook followed up with a public letter saying that Apple would not acquiesce, because doing so would set a legal and technical precedent for law enforcement entry to encrypted Apple user data. On Friday, the Justice Department filed a motion to force Apple to give the FBI what it wants.

Cook wants to form a blue-ribbon commission on user encryption, and Congress wants Cook and FBI director Comey to give testimony on Capitol Hill. There’s also some drama regarding how and why authorities reset the password on Farook’s phone in the aftermath of the shooting, a decision that Apple says is what created this problem in the first place, and the FBI says was definitely not a screw-up.

About 20 minutes after the FT ran its interview with Gates on Monday, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Justice Department is currently fighting 12 cases against Apple to pull data from iPhones, none of which are related to terrorism.

Apple has found solidarity among other companies, including strong praise from Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. Reform Government Surveillance, an advocacy group back by tech companies like Google, Facebook and Microsoft, released a statement last week that showed milder support for Apple.

As for the court of public opinion? A new Pew survey finds that 51 percent of Americans think Apple should comply with the court order.

We’ve reached out to Apple for comment and we’ll update this post if we hear back.

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