Microsoft founder Bill Gates said that the ongoing dispute between the federal government and Apple provides an opportunity for public discussion about the tools used by law enforcement and how far security and privacy extend in a digital world.
"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," Gates said in an interview on Tuesday on Bloomberg TV. "But striking that balance — clearly the government's taken information historically and used it in ways that we didn't expect, going all the way back say to the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover."
"So I'm hoping now we can have the discussion. I do believe there are sets of safeguards where the government shouldn't have to be completely blind," the tech billionaire said.
Gates was expanding on comments he made in an interview with the Financial Times, in which the Microsoft founder said that the ongoing dispute involves "a specific case where the government is asking for access to information."
Much initial news coverage of those remarks, including by NBC News, characterized them as demonstrating support for the FBI in the dispute.
Gates' statements are in line with the tone taken up by much of Big Tech since Apple CEO Tim Cook penned an open letter on Feb. 16 in which he responded to a court order that his company provide assistance in cracking an iPhone used by San Bernardino shooter Syed Rizwan Farook.
Most major tech companies — many of which have their own ongoing legal arguments with the government, including debates over the privacy of their users and law enforcement concerns — have taken a measured response to the dispute. Their responses have, for the most part, embraced the spirit of Apple's stand for user privacy, while at the same time leaving the door open for cooperation with investigators and the government as the law dictates.
"We stand with @tim_cook and Apple (and thank him for his leadership)!" Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey tweeted on Feb. 18.
"Important post by @tim_cook. Forcing companies to enable hacking could compromise users' safety," Google CEO Sunday Pichai tweeted after Cook published his letter. "We build secure products to keep your information safe and we give law enforcement access to data based on valid legal orders."
Many big companies have had their own encounters with government data requests in the years since NSA leaker Edward Snowden made Americans a lot more aware of just how much could be gleaned from their data.
Microsoft, where Gates no longer plays a day-to-day role, has been locked in a legal dispute over emails held on an Irish data server that the government wants access to as part of a drug investigation. Argument in the case has centered around whether a U.S. search warrant is still valid if the data held by an American company is stored on a server physically located beyond the bounds of a valid warrant.
Gates said that the ongoing Apple case will be decided by the legal system, not in the court of public opinion — and that larger issues of tech and national security need to be addressed by lawmakers after debate.
"The courts are going to decide this, and I think Apple said that whatever the final court decision is, they'll abide by," Gates said on Bloomberg TV on Tuesday. "In the meantime, that gives us this opportunity to get the discussion — and these issues will be decided in Congress."