Bill Gates Sides with FBI in iPhone Unlocking Debate, Kind of

While Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is siding with Apple over whether or not the company should be forced to help the government unlock an iPhone, Microsoft founder Bill Gates thinks the FBI is in the right, to a degree. He thinks Apple should help the FBI unlock an iPhone recovered from the San Bernardino shooters last December, and equates the situation to cutting a ribbon tied around a hard drive.

The Financial Times asked Mr. Gates during an interview, "Would you support a back door into Microsoft phones, Google phones, Apple phones, as a general principal?"

He replied, "Nobody is talking about a back door, so that's not the right question," then went on to say,

They [the FBI] 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 around the disk drive and said 'don't make me cut this ribbon because you'll make me cut it many times.'

That analogy holds water if we make several assumptions like tying the ribbon around the hard drive automatically encrypts the data it contains, the ribbon is tied with a knot only the drive owner can undo, and the ribbon is made from a special material that requires the bank to create new scissors capable of cutting it.

Mr Gates went on to say, "The discussion of do you want the government to be blind on one hand, or if it's not blind does it have the right safeguards, how that information when it's acquired and how it's used, that's a good debate. In my view, the benefits of the governments being able to enforce taxation, being able to stop crime, particularly things like terrorism and nuclear weapons or biological means... I hope we can have that debate so that the safeguards are built."

Microsoft founder Bill Gates weighs in onApple and FBI privacy debateMicrosoft founder Bill Gates weighs in onApple and FBI privacy debate

So Mr. Gates isn't exactly saying he supports the FBI's position, but he isn't on board with Apple refusing to comply with the court order, either.

He had an opportunity to clarify his position later in a Bloomberg interview. When asked about his comments to the Financial Times he replied, "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 [should act] on our behalf, like stopping terrorism which could get worse in the future, that is valuable."

That doesn't do much to clarify his earlier statements, other than to say there are times when it's appropriate to give the government access to what otherwise would be private information. He added that we need discussions to decide the right way to deal with personal information and privacy and said he thinks the government should have some level of access to our private data as long as proper safeguards are in place.

When pressed again on whether or not Apple should comply with the court order and help the FBI unlock the iPhone in question, Mr. Gates reiterated his earlier comments about finding a balance between privacy and government access to prevent terrorist attacks.

After speaking with the Financial Times and following up with Bloomberg, where does Mr. Gates stand? Turns out he's still noncommittal, but sympathetic to the government's position. End result: Bill Gates kind of supports the FBI's stance. Sort of.