What Does Bill Hates Really Think About Apple and The FBI?

Bill Gates own Existential crisis is now out there for all the world to see. The Microsoft co-founder and former ceo now finds himself caught up in the vigorous and ongoing debate over whether or not Apple should be forced to create a special mobile operating system to access the Iphone 5C of a known- and now dead- terrorist.

Apple argues that the creation of this software could not only jeopardize the company’s reputation for protecting its customers, but also put at risk the information and safety of millions of iPhone users. The FBI, which is now pressing its case through the U.S. legal system, contends that its request is narrowly focused to that one iPhone and that the information it desires could be of high value in the investigation of last year’s San Bernardino mass shooting.
Gates has now been asked twice in fewer than 12 hours where he stands on the topic. Does he line up behind the majority of tech company CEOs who have spoken publicly about the case and offered their praise and highly equivocated support to Apple, or does he stand on the side of the U.S. law enforcement?
Anyone who has been following this story since it broke nationally last week knows it really isn’t that black and white. The palette best used to paint this picture would be a murky gray. And, still, pro-privacy and intelligence advocates are looking to thought leaders to take a stand on one side or the other of the argument.
If you read the Financial Times headline Tuesday morning, you suddenly knew where Gates stands: “Bill Gates backs FBI iPhone hack request,” read the headline.
Within hours, media outlets around the world, including Mashable, were repeating the news.
Gates’ seeming support of the FBI’s efforts to get Apple to build software to hack its own devices came as a shock. It ran counter to what most tech leaders were saying and, for some, may have stood as a proxy for Microsoft, whose CEO, Satya Nadella, had yet to publicly opine on the topic.
Hours later, though, Gates, talking to the Bloomberg Business television network, said it wasn’t true. The exchange is below:
Host: Were you blind-sided a bit? I came in this morning and saw headlines, “Bill gates backs FBI.”
Gates: Yeah, I was disappointed because that doesn’t state my view on this.”
Gates then outlined his views, which fell pretty much in the center of the debate, making him sound like he sits not with, according to a new Pew Research study, the 51% of Americans who think Apple should comply with the FBI, but with the 11% of fence sitters.
“You don’t wanna just take the minute after a terrorist event and swing that direction,” said Gates, referring to the potential abuses of The Patriot Act.
“Nor,” he continued, “do you, in general, want to swing away from government access when you get some abuse being revealed.”
He was perhaps referring to the 2013 revelation by Edward Snowden that the NSA had been spying on, well, all of us. The allusion to Snowden may reflect a shift for Gates, who told Rolling Stone in 2014, “I think he broke the law, so I certainly wouldn’t characterize him as a hero,” adding that he had no admiration for Snowden.
Gates has, historically, had no admiration for the U.S. government, either, which spent much of the 1990s doggedly pursuing an antitrust case against Microsoft, a case which Microsoft and Gates ultimately lost.
The mind of an evasive genius 
Past, though, is not necessarily prologue here. We have, in this instance, not one, but two video interviews to parse. The Financial Times’ quotes are derived from a video interview on the topic.
I wondered if, perhaps the reporters, Stephen Foley and Tim Bradshaw, misinterpreted Gates. One thing is certain, nowhere in the interview, or even in the story itself, did Gates actually say that he supported the FBI. He also never said he thought Apple should build the software.
In looking at the actual quotes, it’s possible that everything Gates said amounted to the same thing. Without a doubt, the Financial Times did what good media entities do and distilled the Gates’ comments into their essence and created as strong and dramatic a headline as is possible.
Did Gates really mean that the FBI is in the right? Here’s an excerpt from the interview that I transcribed to avoid any misinterpretation:
Foley: Would you support a back door into Microsoft phones, Google Phones, Apple Phones as a general principal?
Gates: Nobody’s 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 particular case.
Foley: But is Apple right to say that, “A backdoor once created in one case is a backdoor that can be used in the future?”
Gates: Apple has access to the information… there’s not, there’s not… they’re just refusing to provide the access and the courts will tell them whether to provide the access or not.
Gates seems to take issue with the use of the term “backdoor,” indicating that the term is not what’s important. He also equates accessing data in this way as “no different than, should anybody ever been able to tell the phone company to get information. Bank records. Should anybody be able to get at bank records.”
He then makes an odd analogy that the Financial Times uses, though they did not include the complete quote:
Let’s say the bank had tied a ribbon around the disk drive and they say, ‘Oh, don’t make me cut this ribbon, because you’ll make me cut it many times just cause this guy’s such a terrible person.’”
Honestly, it’s not entirely clear the point Gates is trying to make. Is the “disk drive” the iPhone 5C data the FBI wants? The bank is clearly Apple, but how is cutting a ribbon many times analogous to building software that could be used an infinite number of times? Once a ribbon is cut, it’s cut, right? As for the “terrible person,” that’s clearly the terrorist.
Those two segments above comprise Gates’ money quotes, the ones that led the Financial Times to craft its headline.
What do you mean?
Looking perplexed and maybe a wee bit exasperated, Gates did his best on Bloomberg to walk back from any implication that he supports the FBI or Apple. He bicycled his comments right down a thin, dotted yellow line in the middle of the controversy. Sure, he wove a bit to one side or the other, but, in these comments, Gates has no allegiance to the FBI or Apple.
“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 told Bloomberg. But Gates also talked about “striking that balance,” and past personal privacy abuses by the government Gates also talked about “striking that balance,” and past personal privacy abuses by the government: “Clearly, the government has taken information historically and used it in ways that we didn’t expect, going all the way back to JFK and J Edgar Hoover.”
What neither Bloomberg nor the Financial Times have taken into account is Bill Gates’ penchant for elusiveness in the face of tough questions. 
The now grandfatherly tech icon can wax eloquent and at length when it comes to The Gates Foundation’s charitable work in trying to solve to world’s problems, but he has, in the past, taken a different and far more calculated approach in the face of controversy, especially when it involves him.
A look back at the 1998 Microsoft antitrust case is instructive. At one point, Gates led government attorneys through a meandering and, it seems, incredibly frustrating 90-minute deposition where they struggled to get any concrete facts out of him. This is from a 1998 CNN story about Gate’s video deposition and its subsequent presentation at the court hearing:
Some of the exchanges evoked laughter in the courtroom. After introducing the Gates’ e-mail into evidence, [U.S. Justice Department attorney David Boies] quizzed Gates about what “non-Microsoft” browsers he was concerned about when he wrote it in January 1996.
Gates said he was confused. “I’m sure — what’s the question? Is it — are you asking me about when I wrote this e-mail or what are you asking me about?”
Said Boies, “I’m asking you about January of 1996.”
Replied Gates: “That month?”
Said Boies, “Yes, sir?”
Replied Gates, “And what about it?”
I don’t think Gates is being evasive in the Apple vs. FBI case, as much as he is trying to paint word pictures without actually completing a usable portrait.
Gate’s stance, or lack of one, comes as no surprise to anyone who understands his position. There is no value in Gates supporting long-time frenemy company Apple and, as a major shareholder in Microsoft, certainly no value in his coming out in full support of the government that has both badgered him in the past and could make Microsoft’s current life difficult if its technology also falls under FBI scrutiny.
Did the Financial Times get it wrong? Not necessarily. They just didn’t recognize Gates was trying to split hairs, not comb them into any definitive style.
Written by Lance Ulanoff


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