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Bill Gates on Apple v. FBI: A balance has to be made between the needs of investigators and privacy rights

‘The sooner we modernize the laws the better.’

Bill Gates thinks new laws are needed to sort out the encryption conflict going on between law enforcement and tech companies.

“The sooner we modernize the laws the better,” Gates says in a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” session.

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He says it’s clear the government under certain circumstances needs to be able to tap into encrypted communications, but also that there should be oversight so that power isn’t abused. “Right now a lot of people don't think the government has the right checks to make sure information is only used in criminal situations,” he says. “So this case will be viewed as the start of a discussion.”

The case involves the FBI seeking access to the iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino terrorists by using a court order that Apple write code to disable its anti-brute-force mechanism. Apple is challenging the validity of the order, saying it will lead to widespread use of the code.

“I think there needs to be a discussion about when the government should be able to gather information,” Gates writes. “Also the government needs to talk openly about safeguards.”

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A balance has to be made between the needs of investigators and rights to privacy. “I think very few people take the extreme view that the government should be blind to financial and communication data,” he says, “but very few people think giving the government carte blanche without safeguards makes sense.”

In addition, the matter needs to be settled across national boundaries. International businesses that make encryption products and those that use them face a rat’s nest of conflicting laws that make doing business difficult. “A lot of countries like the UK and France are also going through this debate,” Gates says. “For tech companies there needs to be some consistency including how governments work with each other.”

“Maybe they could propose an overall plan for striking the balance between government being able to know things in some cases and having safeguards to make sure those powers are confined to appropriate cases. There is no avoiding this debate and they could contribute to how the balance should be struck.”

Meanwhile, Gates addressed concerns about who gets to control artificial intelligence as it develops in order to keep it from being abused, perhaps with regulation as suggested by Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking.

“I haven't seen any concrete proposal on how you would do the regulation,” Gates says. “I think it is worth discussing because I share the view of Musk and Hawking that when a few people control a platform with extreme intelligence it creates dangers in terms of power and eventually control.”

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