Bill Gates Backtracks Support for FBI in Duel With Apple

After disputing Apple’s worries about a “backdoor” into private digital data, Microsoft’s cofounder remembers the dangers of government abuse

Microsoft founder Bill Gates was a bitter competitor to Apple for decades, but he is stepping back from support of Apple’s new main adversary: The FBI.

Initially, the billionaire philanthropist emphasized the FBI and Department of Justice argument that Apple’s help bypassing security features of an iPhone is limited to the single device linked to the deadly mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., in December, in an interview with the Financial Times late Monday.

“Nobody is talking about a ‘backdoor,'” he said to the FT. He likened the circumstances to a theoretical paradox: A bank ties a ribbon around a disk drive and refuses to cut it once, since that might lead to breaking the same seal many more times.

Apple CEO Tim Cook last week said the company would reject a court order to help investigators hack the smartphone because it “would undeniably create a backdoor.”

But Gates later focused on a more middle-ground position in an interview with Bloomberg Tuesday. Asked whether he was blindsided by headlines that he backs the FBI in the dispute, Gates said that doesn’t state his view.

He said that with appropriate shields to protect data, the government shouldn’t need to operate “completely blind” as it tries to investigate threats to public safety, like terrorism. But he noted that the government has overstepped the expected purpose of its information gathering in the past, such as the FBI under the administration of J. Edgar Hoover. Under Hoover, the bureau used FBI files on government officials and critics as weapons of intimidation.

“With the right safeguards there are cases for the government [working] on our behalf, like stopping terrorism which could get worse in the future — that is valuable,” he said. However, he added, “clearly the government has taken information historically and used it in ways we didn’t expect.”

Slowly and moderately, other tech leaders have made statements supporting Apple and Cook. Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey both tweeted praise for Cook for raising the issue, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said this week the company was “sympathetic” to Apple.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the charity that is the Gates’ main focus since leaving Microsoft about seven years ago, didn’t immediately respond to TheWrap’s request for comment.

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