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Maik Meid/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed

What Bill Gates gets wrong about the iPhone unlocking case

Contrary to what Gates said, Apple doesn't just have the phone's data sitting around.

 

William Turton

Tech

Published Feb 23, 2016   Updated May 27, 2021, 4:28 am CDT

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates walked back comments he made on Monday about the court order compelling Apple to help the FBI unlock a San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone, muddling some of the details in the process.

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“Let’s say [a] bank had tied a ribbon around the disk drive and they say, ‘Don’t make me cut this ribbon, because you’ll make me cut it many times, just because this guy’s such a terrible person,’” Gates said in his original interview with the Financial Times, referencing but distorting Apple’s reason for refusing to comply with the order.

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In an open letter to customers stating its intent to appeal the order, Apple said that, if it wrote custom software to let the government flood the iPhone with password guesses, it would set a dangerous precedent.

Gates disputed this argument, telling the Financial Times, “Nobody is talking about a backdoor, so that’s not the right question. This is a specific case where the government is asking for access to information. They’re not asking for some general thing, they’re asking for a specific case.”

The former Microsoft executive’s response stood in stark contrast to comments by Apple CEO Tim Cook, who wrote in the open letter that authorities had “asked us to build a backdoor to the iPhone.”

Contrary to Gates and the government’s assertions, a court filing by Apple’s lawyer in a separate case shows that the FBI wants Apple to help it access data on 12 other iOS devices in cases across the country. Four of those devices run at least iOS 8, meaning Apple will need to use the same code that it is being asked to write in the San Bernardino case.

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Asked by the Financial Times about the potential for this specialized software to set a precedent for further use, Gates dodged the question, saying that “[Apple] is just refusing to provide the access [to the information].”

“Apple has access to the information,” he said. “They’re just refusing to provide the access and the courts will tell them whether to provide the access or not. You shouldn’t call the access some special thing. It’s no different from, should anyone have been able to tell the phone company to get information or should anybody be able to get bank records.”

Contrary to what Gates said, Apple does not currently have access to the information. It can help the FBI get that access by writing the code that the government has asked for, but for legal purposes, this situation is different from the ones—including the bank analogy—that Gates described.

Gates went on Bloomberg TV Tuesday morning to say that he was “disappointed” with the headlines suggesting that he had backed the FBI, but he didn’t say anything specific that differed from his previous comments. He’s now calling for a “discussion” on the issue.

“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 is valuable,” Gates told Bloomberg. “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 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.”

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But Gates didn’t name the safeguards he had in mind, and his reference to a “middle ground” on encryption conflicts with what technical experts say about the issue. Any weakness designed into encryption, they say, makes all phones less secure, because authoritarian regimes or rogue hackers can locate and exploit that weakness.

The government isn’t asking for this kind of backdoor in its iPhone-unlocking cases, but in addition to its concerns about precedent, Apple worries that a sophisticated hacker could steal the special code from Apple and modified it to unlock any iPhone.

Documents released by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden show that, while Gates was chairman of Microsoft, the company gave the NSA backdoor access to its Outlook email service and helped the spy agency intercept video calls made through Skype, which it had acquired.

Photo via Maik Meid/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed

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*First Published: Feb 23, 2016, 4:41 pm CST