After making some initial comments last month that suggested he had sided with the FBI in its case against Apple, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates spoke up on the subject again as part of a recent Reddit AMA. Asked to weigh in, Gates said he hopes government and private companies can come together to discuss best practices as it relates to information-gathering.
There is a perception that exists that the government may overstep its bounds in this area. Gates said a meeting where rules are defined, or at least discussed, would help establish the appropriate “checks” to ensure information is only obtained and used for situations involving criminal activity.
“I think there needs to be a discussion about when the government should be able to gather information. What if we had never had wiretapping?” he said. “Also, the government needs to talk openly about safeguards. Right now a lot of people don’t think the government has the right checks to make sure information is only used in criminal situations. So this case will be viewed as the start of a discussion.
“I think very few people take the extreme view that the government should be blind to financial and communication data but very few people think giving the government carte blanche without safeguards makes sense,” he added. “A lot of countries like the UK and France are also going through this debate. For tech companies there needs to be some consistency including how governments work with each other. The sooner we modernize the laws the better.”
Asked directly “What would you do if you were Apple?” Gates said he would like to see the iPhone-maker propose a plan that strikes a balance between giving government authorities the ability to obtain infomration while also having safeguards in place to ensure this technology is not abused.
“There is no avoiding this debate and they could contribute to how the balance should be struck,” he said.
In February, Apple was ordered by the government to create essentially a new version of iOS that would allow authorities to tap into the iPhone of San Bernadino shooter Syed Rizwan Farook. In an open letter, Apple CEO Tim Cook said what the government is asking of the company fundamentally violates the privacy, security, and trust of its customers. In a follow-up letter to consumers, Apple said it is technically possible to do what the FBI is asking. Apple refuses, however, because it is “too dangerous.”
“The only way to guarantee that such a powerful tool isn’t abused and doesn’t fall into the wrong hands is to never create it,” Apple said at the time.
In his own statement, FBI director James Comey said the government has no intention of creating a master key to “set loose on the land.”
“The particular legal issue is actually quite narrow,” he said. “The relief we seek is limited and its value increasingly obsolete because the technology continues to evolve. 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. That’s it. We don’t want to break anyone’s encryption or set a master key loose on the land.”
“Although this case is about the innocents attacked in San Bernardino, it does highlight that we have awesome new technology that creates a serious tension between two values we all treasure–privacy and safety. That tension should not be resolved by corporations that sell stuff for a living.”
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, and Google CEO Sundar Pichai all sided with Cook and Apple, according to FT. Additionally, Edward Snowden said the Apple vs. FBI battle is “the most important tech case in a decade.”
Also in Gates’ AMA, someone asked the Microsoft veteran–who no longer has any day-to-day responsibilities at the company–to bring back the Age of Empires strategy series.
“I will look into this. How many empires do you need?” he joked.
The full AMA is a good read, as it includes stories about his time at Harvard, his thoughts on the rise of artificial intelligence, bioterrorism concerns, and so much more.