The federal government on Tuesday picked up a powerful ally in its standoff with Apple.
Bill Gates, a founder of Microsoft, publicly broke with Apple in its clash with the Justice Department over access to an iPhone that belonged to an attacker in the December mass shooting in San Bernardino, California.
Speaking with The Financial Times, Gates endorsed the United States government’s position that a judge’s order to help investigators hack into the phone would not set a harmful precedent.
“This is a specific case where the government is asking for access to information,” Gates told the newspaper. “They are not asking for some general thing, they are asking for a particular case.”
Since Apple challenged the court ruling on the phone last week, most technology industry leaders have either lined up behind Apple or stayed silent. Several prominent Silicon Valley leaders — including Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive; Jack Dorsey, the co-founder and chief executive of Twitter; and Sundar Pichai, Google’s chief executive — have publicly closed ranks in support of Apple’s position that the order poses an unacceptable threat to user privacy.
Apple’s chief executive, Timothy D. Cook, has forcefully argued that an order by a federal magistrate judge to assist the government in unlocking the accused terrorist’s phone would open a so-called back door to consumer phones that could obliterate the privacy protections.
The government has portrayed its request as limited in nature, a one-time demand focused on a single device, the work phone issued to Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the San Bernardino gunmen who killed 14 people late last year.
The director of the FBI, James B. Comey Jr., made the case in a public statement on Sunday. “We simply want the chance, with a search warrant, to try to guess the terrorist’s passcode without the phone essentially self-destructing and without it taking a decade to guess correctly,” he said. “That’s it. We don’t want to break anyone’s encryption or set a master key loose on the land.”
Gates told The Financial Times that society benefits from the government’s ability to investigate and thwart terror plots, although he acknowledged some rules are needed to protect information.