In the midst of Apple’s legal battle with the FBI, there has been no shortage of tech leaders who have come out and applauded Apple’s position on user privacy and its refusal to help the FBI bypass the iPhone’s security measures. From Sundar Pichai and Jack Dorsey to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, it almost seems as if Tim Cook’s public letter last week has unified large segments of the tech community behind a common cause.
But not every tech leader and luminary necessarily sees things from Apple’s point of view. So while Tim Cook maintains helping the FBI would set a dangerous precedent, Microsoft founder Bill Gates begs to differ.
During a recent interview with the Financial Times, Gates challenged Tim Cook’s assessment that helping the FBI access the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone would be akin to establishing a backdoor that would wreak havoc on user privacy.
“This is a specific case where the government is asking for access to information,” Gates explained. “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’.”
In a similar vein, FBI director James Comey recently emphasized that the software solution the FBI is seeking is narrow in scope and that the agency doesn’t “want to break anyone’s encryption or set a master key loose on the land.”
Apple of course doesn’t quite see things that way. In an FAQ published on Apple’s website on Monday, the company specifically addressed the argument raised by Gates, Comey and others who believe Apple should accommodate the FBI’s demands.
In the physical world you can destroy something and it’s gone. But in the digital world, the technique, once created, could be used over and over again, on any number of devices.
Law enforcement agents around the country have already said they have hundreds of iPhones they want Apple to unlock if the FBI wins this case. In the physical world, it would be the equivalent of a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks. Of course, Apple would do our best to protect that key, but in a world where all of our data is under constant threat, it would be relentlessly attacked by hackers and cybercriminals.
As to Apple’s argument that complying with the FBI’s requests would unleash a tidal wave of similar demands from law enforcement agencies, the Wall Street Journal is reporting that the Justice Department is already “pursuing court orders to force Apple Inc. to help investigators extract data from iPhones in about a dozen undisclosed cases around the country, in disputes similar to the current battle over a terrorist’s locked phone…”
UPDATE: Bill Gates spoke to Bloomberg and clarified that he does not support the FBI on this issue.