Bill Gates thinks there's room for a balanced solution to the debate over Apple's refusal to comply with an FBI order demanding it provide access to a phone belonging to one of the San Bernardino shooters, breaking slightly from the strong cautions voiced by many in Silicon Valley.
In an interview with the Financial Times, the Microsoft co-founder said this specific request for information by the government won't necessarily set a harmful precedent. Apple CEO Tim Cook has said that bypassing the security on this handset would mean creating a "backdoor" that would make every iPhone more vulnerable to hackers.
The company Gates helped create has defended Apple. Microsoft President and Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith posted on Twitter about the debate last week saying "in a world where we need to keep both the public safe and privacy rights secure, backdoors take us backwards."
But Gates said the discussion isn't about creating a backdoor. "This is a specific case where the government's asking for access to information. They're not asking for some general thing, they're asking for a particular case," Gates said.
Gates later clarified his comments in an interview with Bloomberg on Tuesday morning and said he's not backing the FBI but looking to strike a balance between the two arguments.
"I do believe that with the right safeguards, there are cases where the government on our behalf—like stopping terrorism, which could get worse in the future — that that is valuable," he said on Bloomberg. "Clearly, the government's taken information historically and used it in ways that we didn't expect, going all the way back to the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover."
He said the government shouldn't be unable to access important information, and he hopes to see a robust debate on the issue as the courts decide what to do.
His comments offer the latest insight into the ongoing clash between Apple and the FBI, which wants Apple to help authorities hack Syed Farook’s county-owned work phone. The heated debate has led to calls for Apple's cooperation by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and family members of the shooting victims.
"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," Gates said in the Financial Times interview. "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.'"