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Bill Gates Fears Tech Industry Stonewalling Government Device Access Might Backfire

Bill Gates, the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft who now spends his days on philanthropy through his Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, made some comments that might ruffle a few feathers in the tech industry. Speaking to Axios, Gates warned that big tech companies should be careful not to put their own needs so far ahead of the government's that they essentially end up shooting themselves in the foot, or hurt the public interest at large.

While Gates did not get into specifics, his comments seemed aimed at companies like Apple and Google resisting government requests to unlock mobile devices in certain situations. This has been a point of contention between the two sides. For example, in the aftermath of the 2015 San Bernardino attack that extinguished 14 innocent lives, authorities retrieved an iPhone that belonged to the shooter and wanted Apple's help in unlocking it. Apple resisted, saying that thwarting its own security measures would leave hundreds of millions of iPhone and iPad devices vulnerable to attack.

Lawsuits were filed and the issue seemed destined for the Supreme Court, until the government found a third-party source to assist with cracking the iPhone's security.

"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," Gates said.

In regards to being able to unlock an iPhone specifically, Gates said "There's no question of ability; it's the question of willingness." And he's right in that regard. Apple has the technical know-how to defeat its own security and could, if it desired, built a backdoor into its iPhone devices. But so far the company has not been willing to do that.

This is a topic that Gates and Apple CEO Tim Cook definitely do not see eye-to-eye on. In an interview with ABC News two years ago, Cook called the FBI's iPhone unlock request the "software equivalent of cancer," a hard hitting statement considering that Apple co-founder Steve Jobs died from cancer.

"There's probably more information about you on your phone then there is in your house. Our smartphones are loaded with our intimate conversations, our financial data, our health records. They're also loaded with the location of our kids in many cases. And so it's not just about privacy, but it's also about public safety.," Cook said at the time.

It seems unlikely that Apple and Google will suddenly change their minds on the issue, no matter what words of warning Gates offers up.

Thumbnail Image Source: Flickr via Claudio Toledo

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