Bill Gates rarely shied away from confronting Apple when he was Microsoft’s CEO, and new comments to Axios today suggest that he has a new issue with Cupertino: Unbreakable encryption. Without mentioning Apple’s name, Gates raised the prospect that the company might be on the wrong side of the encryption debate, specifically when it comes to investigating criminals, and could face government regulation if it doesn’t cooperate with investigations.
Offered during a discussion of “big trends” that scare the technologist-turned-philanthropist, Gates’s premise is somewhat nuanced: Even if technology companies are moving society forward, they shouldn’t impede traditional governmental functions. “The companies need to be careful,” said Gates, “that they’re not… advocating things that would prevent government from being able to, under appropriate review, perform the type of functions that we’ve come to count on.”
One example? Taking a “view that even a clear mass-murdering criminal’s communication should never be available to the government.” When asked whether he was referring to Apple being able to unlock an iPhone, Gates said, “There’s no question of ability; it’s the question of willingness.” Some might read that as requiring a universal iOS backdoor that government actors could open with a court order, but offering case-by-case assistance to investigators could have the same effect.
Apple has described itself as unable to decrypt content stored on iOS devices, and unwilling “to add a backdoor into any of our products.” Even facing FBI demands for assistance unlocking the iPhone of a gunman in San Bernardino, California, CEO Tim Cook refused to budge, touting Apple’s commitment to user privacy as more important. More recently, however, Apple has apparently offered to help the FBI in ways that don’t compromise its encryption system as a whole.
In the interview, Gates appears to be concerned about technology’s empowerment of “a small group of people to cause damage,” including anything from nuclear to bioterror to cyber weapons, which could impact billions of people. To that end, he also questioned tech companies’ “enthusiasm about making financial transactions anonymous and invisible,” presumably allowing money to flow to dark places without consequence.
While Gates may appear to be focusing heavily on Apple, he’s correct in noting that the U.S. government has historically had the ability to trace transactions and examine individuals’ communications during investigations. These data points have been the foundations of numerous criminal prosecutions, and if a company tries to impede reasonable investigations, it may actually be overstepping historic privacy rights. “The tech companies have to be … careful that they’re not trying to think their view is more important than the government’s view,” said Gates, “or than the government being able to function in some key areas.”
Gates is currently a full-time philanthropist, heading up the charitable Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation with his wife. Under his watch, Microsoft developed a monopoly on PC operating systems, eventually losing a historic antitrust case that forced the company to assist third-party competitors, and limit its web browser development.