Bill Gates warns that big tech companies aren’t worried enough about government regulation, in a new interview with Axios today. Calling out “Apple and other tech giants,” Gates argues that companies are inviting government intervention by flaunting hubris, saying they need to be “careful that they’re not trying to think their view is more important than the government’s view, or than the government being able to function in some key areas.”
When Axios asked Gates for an example, he said, “enthusiasm about making financial transactions anonymous and invisible, and their view that even a clear mass-murdering criminal’s communication should never be available to the government.” When pressed on whether Gates meant being able to unlock an iPhone, he replied, “There’s no question of ability; it’s the question of willingness.”
This response appears to reference the dispute between the FBI and Apple over obtaining access to an iPhone connected to the San Bernardino shooting in 2015. Though the FBI ultimately broke into the phone without Apple’s help, Apple fought the agency on the issue, pledging it would go to court to protect user privacy. “From the beginning, we objected to the FBI’s demand that Apple build a backdoor into the iPhone because we believed it was wrong and would set a dangerous precedent,” the company said in a statement at the time. “Apple believes deeply that people in the United States and around the world deserve data protection, security and privacy. Sacrificing one for the other only puts people and countries at greater risk.”
At the time of the dispute, Gates publicly said he felt Apple’s worries were unfounded, as what was requested only applied to a single device, not widespread access to all Apple devices. “Nobody’s talking about a backdoor… this is a specific case where the government is asking for access to information. They’re not asking for a general thing, they’re asking for a particular case,” Gates told the Financial Times in 2016. Gates’ new comments about the “question of willingness” seems to reinforce his conclusion that Apple has the means to break into an individual phone, but chooses not to.
Gates previously voiced his opinion on striking a balance between government access to encrypted data while maintaining user safety and privacy in a Reddit AMA last year. ”Maybe they could propose an overall plan for striking the balance between government being able to know things in some cases and having safeguards to make sure those powers are confined to appropriate cases,” Gates wrote. “There is no avoiding this debate and they could contribute to how the balance should be struck.”