The row between Apple and the FBI over access to a dead murderer’s phone should start a debate about government requests for data, says Bill Gates.
The FBI wants Apple to unlock the iPhone of Syed Rizwan Farook who killed 14 people in December last year.
Apple has resisted the demand saying the FBI order was “dangerous” and “unprecedented”.
Speaking to the Financial Times, the Microsoft founder said complying would not put a backdoor in all iPhones.
“This is a specific case where the government is asking for access to information,” he said in the interview. “They are not asking for some general thing, they are asking for a particular case.”
Mr Gates said the case was similar to the requests regularly made to phone companies and banks for information.
In a separate interview with the BBC, Mr Gates reiterated his view that the issue came down to a debate about whether governments can get at data they use to protect citizens.
“Should governments be able to access information at all or should they be blind, that’s essentially what we are talking about,” he told the BBC.
Microsoft itself has not formally commented on the row between the FBI and Apple. However, when pushed on the issue Microsoft referred to a statement issued by the Reform Government Surveillance group of which it is a member.
That statement sides with Apple saying: “Technology companies should not be required to build in backdoors to the technologies that keep their users’ information secure.”
It emerged this week that the US Department of Justice is asking for Apple’s help to get at data on iPhones relevant to more than a dozen separate investigations. The Wall Street Journal said the cases came from several different criminal investigations and data locked on the handsets would help law enforcement.
None of the cases is believed to be related to terrorism and many involved older iPhones that lack the stronger security protections found on newer devices.
More recently, Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg said he was “sympathetic” to Apple’s stance in the row.
The attack in San Bernadino by Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik in December last year left 14 people dead and 22 injured.
In a statement published on Sunday, FBI director James Comey said its demand for access to the data on the phone was “about the victims and justice”.
Slightly more than half of all Americans, 51%, when asked whether Apple should unlock the phone, believe it should comply with the FBI’s order, according to a survey carried out by the Pew Research Center. Of those questioned, 38% said Apple should resist the call and 11% had no opinion.
On Monday, Apple boss Tim Cook sent a letter to the firm’s employees about the row saying its refusal was about a broader civil rights issue not just this one case.
It also called for the US government to set up a government panel on encryption to look into the ways law enforcement can ask for access to data.