Add Bill Gates to the cacophony of voices – from a former CIA director to Donald Trump – weighing in on the debate that has erupted between Apple and the FBI over user privacy, security and the attempt to unlock a phone used by one of the shooters in the San Bernardino, California, terrorism attacks.
Early Tuesday, the Financial Times published an interview with the Microsoft founder with a headline that said he sided with the FBI. In it, Gates said that the government’s request was “no different” than getting access to bank or telephone records and seemed to question Apple’s position that complying with the order would be precedent-setting.
“This is a specific case where the government is asking for access to information,” he said. “They’re not asking for some general thing – they are asking for a particular case.”
Yet shortly thereafter, Gates told Bloomberg News that he was “disappointed” by how the piece was framed and said that more discussion is needed on the issue. He said he thinks that it will be decided by the courts and Congress but will require striking a balance.
“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.
Still, Gates’s effort to search for middle ground broke ranks with the more effusive support many tech leaders have shown for Apple and its chief executive, Tim Cook.
“His analogies to physical bank records in a vault really made it sound like he thought Apple should comply,” said Mark Bartholomew, a law professor at SUNY-Buffalo who focuses on cybercrime. “I think he’s still sounding a very different, more cautious note from most of the others.”
For instance, Jack Dorsey, chief executive of Twitter and the mobile payments company Square, tweeted: “We stand with @tim_cook and Apple (and thank him for his leadership)!” Jan Koum, the co-founder of WhatsApp, said on Facebook he “couldn’t agree more with everything said in [Apple’s] Customer Letter. We must not allow this dangerous precedent to be set. Today our freedom and our liberty is at stake.”
In a lengthy blog post, tech entrepreneur Mark Cuban gave Apple’s decision to oppose the government’s order an “amen” and “a standing ovation,” suggesting that a law is needed to clear up confusion on the issue.
There appears to be an effort to mobilize public opinion before it becomes hardened by the political debates that are sure to take off. “A lot of this is an attempt to very publicly tell the consumer, ‘Look: We’re on the front lines trying to defend your privacy,’ ” he said.
Other CEOs were careful to note their allegiance to helping the government while expressing support for Apple. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg noted that the company feels it has a responsibility to help the government when there are opportunities to help prevent terrorist attacks and will take them. But, he said, “we’re sympathetic with Apple on this one” and added, “I don’t think requiring backdoors into encryption is either going to be an effective way to increase security or is really the right thing to do for just the direction that the world is going in.”
In a series of tweets, Google CEO Sundar Pichai called Cook’s open letter “important,” saying that “forcing companies to enable hacking could compromise users’ privacy.” He added that law enforcement faces challenges and that Google gives access when there are “valid legal orders” but notes “that’s wholly different than requiring companies to enable hacking of customer devices & data. Could be a troubling precedent.”
Tech companies also have more to lose than other industries if their reputation on the issue suffers. Paul Argenti, a professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business who studies corporate communications, notes that the tech industry ranks highest among its peers in the Edelman Trust Barometer, a global survey of consumer opinion. As a result, he said, it has more to protect by speaking out. “Along with that trust,” he says, “comes an obligation to weigh in on an issue of this magnitude.”
There could still be others who add their voices to the chorus. Says Bartholomew: “It’s easier to take a position now that Tim Cook has,” he said. “He’s a very well-known CEO, and so I think his face out there provides a certain amount of cover. Once Apple makes a stand, it’s easier for other companies to join up.”