Bill Gates says Apple-FBI fight is not black and white

Bill Gates on Apple: Safeguards issue a 'valuable debate'
Bill Gates on Apple: Safeguards issue a 'valuable debate'

Bill Gates said headlines that he supported the FBI in its legal fight with Apple went too far.

Gates has taken a decidedly more nuanced view of the issue than many others in the technology industry.

While many tech executives have voiced their full support for Apple CEO Tim Cook, the Microsoft founder said that Congress and the courts must help strike an appropriate balance between security and privacy.

"I do believe there are sets of safeguards where the government shouldn't have to be completely blind," Gates said in an interview on "Bloomberg <GO>" Tuesday morning. "But striking that balance -- clearly the government has taken information historically and used it in ways we didn't expect, going all the way back to say the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover."

Yet Gates said it's important not to get too caught up in the emotions following a terrorist attack. Similarly, he said that people shouldn't act to quickly after revelations of government abuse, such as when Edward Snowden revealed the scope of the NSA's bulk collection.

"It is a challenge to update the policies," Gates said.

Gates pushed back against the headline in a Financial Times story on Tuesday that reads, "Bill Gates backs FBI iPhone hack request."

"I was disappointed 'cause that doesn't state my view on this," Gates told Bloomberg.

In his FT interview, Gates suggested that Apple is mischaracterizing its fight against an FBI request to unlock the iPhone of deceased San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook.

"It is no different than ... should anybody ever have been able to tell the phone company to get information ... should anybody be able to get at bank records," the Microsoft (MSFT) founder said. "There's no difference between information."

Apple (AAPL)'s Cook has vigorously opposed the FBI's demand, saying the government is asking the company to "hack our own users and undermine decades of security advancements that protect our customers." Breaking into the smartphone, Cook claims, requires building a backdoor that "could be used over and over again, on any number of devices."

The tech industry has rallied around Apple as it resists the FBI's order. Google (GOOG), Twitter (TWTR) and Facebook (FB) have all backed the company. But Gates appears to see the issue differently.

"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," Gates said.

In an interview with CNN's Fareed Zakaria, which will air on Sunday at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET, Gates said that Apple is taking a principled stance, but it will ultimately comply with the law of the land.

"All Apple's doing is delaying the decision," Gates told Zakaria. "So I don't think it's a big deal whether they gave in or didn't give in."

FBI Director James Comey has described his agency's request as "limited."

"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," he said. "That's it. We don't want to break anyone's encryption or set a master key loose on the land."

Related: Who's taking sides on Apple vs. FBI

Gates is still on Microsoft's board of directors, but he's no longer involved in running the software giant day to day. Although the company hasn't issued its own official statement on the Apple case, it is a member of the Reform Government Surveillance alliance.

That group of companies, which also includes Yahoo (YAHOF) and AOL, put out a statement last week saying that "technology companies should not be required to build in backdoors to the technologies that keep their users' information secure."

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