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Bill Gates Says the FBI Only Wants to Unlock One iPhone — But There Are 12 Other Cases

The co-founder of Apple rival Microsoft took the FBI's side in the dispute over unlocking an iPhone that belonged to a gunman in the San Bernardino shooting.

by Avi Asher-Schapiro
Feb 23 2016, 4:55pm

Photo via EPA

The very public dispute between Apple and the Department of Justice over whether the company should unlock an iPhone that belonged to a gunman in the San Bernardino shootings has taken several more turns. Prominent figures are weighing in, and new information has emerged about other cases where the government has reportedly sought to unlock Apple devices.

Bill Gates, the co-founder of Apple rival Microsoft, took the side of the the government on Tuesday, while some victims of the San Bernardino shooting are reportedly planning to file a legal brief in support of the government's case to unlock the phone, which is protected by a four-digit passcode and could be set to erase itself after 10 incorrect guesses.

Although a US Magistrate ordered Apple to unlock the phone last week, Apple CEO Tim Cook has been defiant. "This case is about much more than a single phone or a single investigation," Cook said in the email to employees on Monday. "At stake is the data security of hundreds of millions of law-abiding people, and setting a dangerous precedent that threatens everyone's civil liberties."

Related: FBI Approved Hack That Complicated Access to San Bernardino Shooter's iPhone Data

The DOJ is asking Apple to essentially create a digital tool that could unlock any Apple iPhone. The government at first claimed it only wanted to access the phone that belonged to Syed Farook, who, along with his wife, gunned down 14 people and wounded 22 others last December in an attack that authorities say was inspired by the Islamic State. But the Wall Street Journal revealed on Monday that the DOJ is also pressing Apple to unlock iPhones in 12 separate cases as well.

For its part, Apple worries that such a tool could be used in the future by governments or hackers to jeopardize the security of all iPhones. Many tech luminaries, from whistleblower Edward Snowden to Google CEO Sundar Pichai, have spoken out in support of Apple.

But Gates broke ranks on Monday, and seemed to side with the Department of Justice. "This is a specific case where the government is asking for access to information. They are not asking for some general thing, they are asking for a particular case," he told Financial Times.

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"It is no different than [the question of] should anybody ever have been able to tell the phone company to get information, should anybody be able to get at bank records," the billionaire said. "Let's say the bank had tied a ribbon round the disk drive and said, 'Don't make me cut this ribbon because you'll make me cut it many times.'"

After Gates criticized Apple, Snowden, a former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor who exposed extensive US spy programs in leaks to the media, pointed out that Microsoft had a history of close cooperation with government authorities, including making their Outlook email client easy for the government to access.

In defending the government, Gates echoed similar arguments made by FBI Director James Comey. In an article published late Sunday on the national security legal blog Lawfare, Comey tried to portray the issue as one of legal process rather than privacy. "Fourteen people were slaughtered and many more had their lives and bodies ruined," Comey wrote. "We owe them a thorough and professional investigation under law. That's what this is."

Related: The Fight Between Apple and the FBI Could Shape the Future of Digital Privacy

Opinion polls show that the public tends to side with the government in dispute. And Stephen Larson, a lawyer representing families of victims who died in San Bernardino says his clients support the government.

To force Apple to comply, the DOJ is relying on the All Writs Act, which was signed into law by President George Washington in 1789. On Monday, Apple called on lawmakers to form a committee to study the implications of the government requests, and to look into modernizing US privacy laws.

"We feel the best way forward would be for the government to withdraw its demands under the All Writs Act and, as some in Congress have proposed, form a commission or other panel of experts on intelligence, technology, and civil liberties to discuss the implications for law enforcement, national security, privacy, and personal freedoms," the company said in a statement.

But the DOJ hasn't given any indication it will back down and Apple has until Friday to comply with the government's request.

Follow Avi Asher-Schapiro on Twitter: @AASchapiro