Bill Gates’ Thoughts on the Government Forcing Tech Companies to Unlock Phones

There’s been an ongoing situation between the government and Apple on whether or not the creators of the iPhone should be forced to unlock phones when it might help them solve a crime. Bill Gates recently added his thoughts on the controversy.

There was one crime in particular where this became an issue. In December 2015 a husband and wife teamed up and went on a terrorist attack at a Christmas party in San Bernardino, California, with about 80 employees in attendance.

The couple shot 14 people while 22 others are injured. While both of them were of Pakistani descent, the FBI did not believe they were connected to any foreign terrorist network and believe their extremism was from being poisoned over the Internet.

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During the investigation the FBI was unable to unlock an iPhone 5C they had recovered after the attack. It was owned by the county and was issued to one of the shooters who was an employee.

They asked the National Security Agency to break into the phone, but they were unable to. They asked Apple to create a new version of iOS so that it could be used to disable the security features. Apple declined based on policy.

They were then court ordered to do so, but they fought this, as they feared creating a backdoor would pose risks to their customers. They did, however, provide the F.B.I. with four different methods that could be used to access the contents.

Eventually the Department of Justice was able to unlock the phone, and it was thought to have been done through a hack. Neither the method used nor the hacker who was successful with it were ever identified.

After that initial instance, there were other situations that popped up of Apple refusing to create software that would allow the government access to the contents of their secure phones. It’s now brought up the question of whether or not tech companies should be forced to unlock their phones, and Gates gave his thoughts on it.

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The companies need to be careful 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,” said the founder of Microsoft.

He mentioned companies’ “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.”

He also doesn’t believe it’s a question of the government’s ability to unlock a phone but a question of “willingness.”

Gates has concerns that technology may be empowering groups who have nefarious intentions. “There’s always the question how much technology is empowering a small group of people to cause damage … Smaller groups might have access to … nuclear weapons or, even worse, bioterror or cyber” weapons.

While the businessman doesn’t come out and say he thought Apple was wrong to deny access, his wording makes it clear he thinks there was more they could have done.

It’s easy to see why he couldn’t come right out and say he believed Apple was wrong, as both sides of the situation have advantages.

We want phones that are ultra secure. We want phones that aren’t able to be easily broken into or hacked. However, we also don’t want nefarious-minded individuals to be able to use that to their advantage.

How do you feel in his matter? Do you think Apple should provide access to their phones in these instances? Or do you think they are in the right protecting access and their customers? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Image Credit: DFID – UK Department for International Development for Gates photo, all other images public domaain

9 comments

  1. “Neither the method used nor the hacker who was successful with it were ever identified.”
    Neither was it said whether any pertinent information was discovered on the phone in question. Is it possible that the government does not want to admit that there was no nefarious information to be discovered?

    The government wants companies to provide them with hacks and back doors for phones so that authorities can discover incriminating evidence. Is the government so naive to believe that the terrorists will continue to use cell phones for their nefarious activities?! What happens when the terrorists go back to one of the oldest modes of communication – face to face meetings? Will the government then mandate hypersensitive microphones on every lamp post and the recording of ALL conversations in the hopes of overhearing some plot? If the terrorists communicate through hand written notes, will the government outlaw paper and any implement capable of writing?

    Even if the government gets the hacks and backdoors it wants, how will they control them i.e. how will they make sure that only government agencies are able to use them? The government is telling us that it will only hack the phones after the fact and only to look for confirmation of terrorist activities. How long before the government starts using the backdoors and hacks prophylactically? How long after that before the government starts prophylactically listening to all phone calls with the goal of discovering evidence of ANY crime being contemplated? Are we willing to have all our conversations monitored by the authorities in the vague hope of catching a few alleged criminals?

    The iPhone hack is the nose of the camel under the tent flap. Once a camel its nose under the flap, soon the rest will follow.

    • I agree with the points regarding the challenges with keeping “hacks and backdoors” from the hands of non-government entities (i.e., “bad guys”). I do believe technology companies should cooperate after the fact of wrongdoing, to the degree possible. How can we know whether there is pertinent information without checking? The argument that nothing incriminating was found in any particular case is not reason to not look – once a criminal investigation is underway, it is irresponsible to not try.

  2. If apple doesn’t give it up, no problem… the govt will just start recruiting the people who can hack the phones… this stuff has been going on long before you and I have been around…

  3. I have to admit that I was (pleasantly) surprised by Mr. Gates position on this issue and find myself (generally) in agreement with it. If you are not using your phone (or other “personal computing device”) to do anything illegal than what is the objection / problem if the manufacture has the ability to provide law enforcement with the contents therein (via correctly executed “due process”)? I mean yes we (as American citizens) have the right to privacy but we do not have the right to break the law or obstruct justice…

    • “we (as American citizens) have the right to privacy but we do not have the right to break the law or obstruct justice…”
      Agreed. However, should the government treat all the inhabitants as criminals whose electronic communication have to be checked for possible nefarious intent? I was under the impression that one of the tenets of US criminal law is the principle of “Innocent until proven guilty”. Government is turning that around 180 degrees into “EVERYBODY is guilty until they prove themselves innocent”.

  4. I run into this problem almost every day. Think of it this way; a judge has given law enforcement a search warrant for a building that likely contains evidence of a crime. The building was built by Apple, and it’s made of an impenetrable material that cannot be breached by modern law enforcement tools. Does any reasonable person think that Apple should make such a building, without some way of being able to get in? A phone is merely a container, with digital evidence on memory chips. But it’s the same concept, and now Samsung has done a decent job of making some Android phones as difficult to unlock as the iPhone. I want a secure phone as well, one that a thief cannot get into or disable, that can be tracked and/or remotely wiped when it connects to a network. But, there is a solution to let law enforcement legally access phones after obtaining a court order, and the phone manufacturers must allow this to occur.
    Companies that conduct business in a state must comply with a legal demand from that state court for records when presented with a court order. Phone manufacturers should face the same penalties for non-compliance for not providing a method of access to the contents of a device they created.

    • To obtain a search warrant for a building or an apartment, the law enforcement has to present the judge with a plausible proof of probable cause. In the case of cell phones the government wants backdoors to any and all phones. To use your analogy, that would be like allowing law enforcement to enter any building under any pretext or granting them a search warrant just because they want one which would allow for “fishing expeditions”. This is the way things are done under dictatorships and police states. Is United States a police state or a dictatorship, or is it still a democracy as it loudly proclaims?

      I notice that nowhere in your post did you mention constitutional guarantees for the citizens. All you talk about are the requirements of the police and the laws guaranteeing the police access to information. In order to facilitate the pursuit of the putative “terrorists”, how many other civil rights and civil liberties are we willing to eliminate? Are we willing to bring back torture because it might facilitate police obtaining information? Are we willing to suspend Habeas Corpus because the prospect of indefinite incarceration might induce the suspect or the witness to be more forthcoming with information or confession?

      • You responded in a typical fashion; ignore what is being stated and redirect the conversation to your desired talking point. I don’t have the time or patience to educate you, but go back and re-read my comment. I clearly stated that nothing proceeds without a search warrant or court order issued by a judge. That is the constitutional right to protection from unlawful search and seizure. Yes, government has abused the power (the Obama administration using government resources to spy on an oposition candidate in the 2016 election immediately comes to mind) and there has to be severe penalties for law enforcement officials and judges that break the rules.
        So, to summarize, no one gets access to the data without a lawful court order, period. No one gets to look at the data or mine for information out of curiosity and then obtain a court order after finding a nugget of information worth looking at. No one gets to manufacture ‘evidence’ to then try to obtain said court order, and risks imprisonment, disbarment and loss of pension if caught doing so. We have laws, lots of them, and strong privacy protection built in to the constitution (that is frequently ignored for the sake of convenience). Follow the constitution and allow the lawful search of all devices manufactured, period.

        • “You responded in a typical fashion; ignore what is being stated and redirect the conversation to your desired talking point.”
          Please re-read your post. You certainly are not listening to what I am saying. You just keep pounding on your desired talking point about the legal rights of law enforcement to obtain any information they want and the legal obligations of citizens to submit. Look at your last sentence. It basically says “STFU and give us what we want.” We live in supposedly democratic United states, not in Stalinist Russia or Peron’s Argentina.

          Government loves the Constitution when it works in their favor but when it works against them, they find all kinds of loopholes, exceptions and/or extenuating circumstances to get around said Constitution. I do not have the patience to enumerate all the cases where government’s agents have infringed or trampled on constitutional protections. Besides, even if I did list them, you would find reasons to justify the infringement.

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