Bill Gates says reports of him backing the FBI in the ongoing saga with Apple over the unlocking of a killer's iPhone are inaccurate.
Asked about widespread reports that the former Microsoft CEO and the world's richest man was taking the Feds' side, Gates told Bloomberg News on Tuesday that he was "disappointed" with the reporting and that it "doesn't state my view on this."
In an earlier interview with the Financial Times, Gates questioned whether the FBI's court order would set a larger precedent.
"This is a specific case where the government is asking for access to information. They are not asking for some general thing, they are asking for a particular case," he told the newspaper. The issue of whether the FBI request would represent a legal precedent has become a central aspect of the broader push for public opinion on the issue.
After a number of companies and high-profile CEOs, most recently Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, have come out in support of Apple CEO Tim Cook, Gates' comment led to the FT leading with the claim that he had "broken ranks" with Silicon Valley.
According to Gates, however, he has a more nuanced view about "striking a balance" in providing government access to information rather than in deciding who is right, the FBI or Apple. "I'm hoping we can have a discussion," he noted, adding that it will be the courts and Congress that ultimately decide the issue.
Gates' larger point is that, in future, terrorist acts may be larger and scarier than random shootings and could include nuclear or biological threats. Under these scenarios, the government "shouldn't be completely blind," he argued, but there should be "safeguards" to prevent abuse.
It's unlikely that Gates did not have an intimate understanding of exactly what the FBI is asking of Apple and what the broader implications of that are.
As such, it was noteworthy that he would argue the case that the FBI is making: that the court order requiring Apple to assist the FBI in opening up the locked iPhone of San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook does not set a precedent.
However, that very argument may have been undermined by a new court document that had just been unsealed in which an Apple lawyer points to no fewer than 12 other cases in which the US Justice Department is asking for access to iPhones.
Apple alluded to the fact that there were other cases that would be impacted by the current case in an Q&A posted on Monday, but with the unsealing of this court document, we now know that there are an additional four phones in Illinois, three in New York, two in California, two in Ohio and one in Massachusetts that the federal government wishes to access.
Further highlighting the fact that it is not solely a case of access to phones in the rare incidences of terrorist acts – none of the 12 other cases are thought to have any connection to terrorism.
In other words, what Apple has said repeatedly – that agreeing to create a version of its mobile operating system that can be used to bypass its phones' security would serve as a precedent for law enforcement to gain access to future phones – does appear to be true.
That puts recent comments by FBI director James Comey in a new light. He wrote this week that the legal argument "is actually quite narrow" and any use of the court order would become "increasingly obsolete."
The big question now is how the FBI is choosing to define the word "narrow." ®