Early Tuesday, the Financial Times published an interview with the Microsoft founder and former CEO with a headline that said he sided with the FBI. In it, Gates said the government's request was "no different" than getting access to bank or telephone records and seemed to question Apple's position that complying with the order would be precedent setting. "This is a specific case where the government is asking for access to information," he said. "They're not asking for some general thing, they are asking for a particular case."
Yet shortly thereafter, Gates told Bloomberg News he was "disappointed" by the way the piece was framed and said more discussion is needed on the issue. He said he thinks it will be decided by the courts and Congress, but that it will require striking a balance. "I do believe that with the right safeguards there are cases where the government, on our behalf — like stopping terrorism, which could get worse in the future — that that is valuable," he said.
Still, Gates' effort to search for middle ground broke ranks with the more effusive support many tech leaders have shown for Apple and its CEO, Tim Cook.
"His analogies to physical bank records in a vault really made it sound like he thought Apple should comply," said Mark Bartholomew, a University at Buffalo law professor who focuses on cybercrime. "I think he’s still sounding a very different, more cautious note from most of the other tech CEOs that have lined up in full force behind Apple."
For instance, Jack Dorsey, CEO of both Twitter and the mobile payments company Square, tweeted that "We stand with @tim_cook and Apple (and thank him for his leadership)!" Jan Koum, the co-founder of the popular messaging service WhatsApp, said on Facebook that he "couldn't agree more with everything said in [Apple's] Customer Letter today. We must not allow this dangerous precedent to be set. Today our freedom and our liberty is at stake."
In a lengthy blog post, Dallas Mavericks owner and tech entrepreneur Mark Cuban even gave Apple's decision to oppose the government's order an "amen" and "a standing ovation," suggesting a law was needed to clear up confusion on the issue. "Rather than being on an eternally slippery slope of privacy violations hidden behind the All Writs Act, we [need to] have a law that will truly limit the circumstances where companies like Apple can be compelled to help a government agency crack a device."
The parade of CEO voices sounding off on the issue, Bartholomew said, appears to be an effort to mobilize public opinion before it gets hardened by the political debates that are sure to take off. "I can see these folks trying to start to set their rhetorical narratives," he said. "A lot of this is an attempt to very publicly tell the consumer 'look, we’re on the front lines trying to defend your privacy.' "
They may have their work cut out for them. The Pew Research Center found in a survey conducted over the weekend that 51 percent of respondents said Apple should help to unlock the device, while 38 percent said Apple should not do so. Another 11 percent, however, said they didn't know.
Other CEOs were careful to note their allegiance to helping the government while expressing support for Apple. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, speaking at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, noted that the company feels it has a responsibility to help the government when there are opportunities to help prevent terrorist attacks and will take them. But he said "we're sympathetic with Apple on this one," and that "I don't think requiring backdoors into encryption is either going to be an effective way to increase security or is really the right thing to do for just the direction that the world is going in."
Google CEO Sundar Pichai, in a series of tweets, called Cook's open letter "important," saying that "forcing companies to enable hacking could compromise users' privacy." He noted that law enforcement faces challenges and that Google gives access when there are "valid legal orders," but notes "that's wholly different than requiring companies to enable hacking of customer devices & data. Could be a troubling precedent."
Technology companies also have more to lose than other industries if their reputation on the issue falters. Paul Argenti, a professor at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business who studies corporate communications, notes that the tech industry ranks highest among its peers in the Edelman Trust Barometer, a global survey of consumer opinion. As a result, he said they have more to protect by speaking out. "I think along with that trust comes an obligation to weigh in on an issue of this magnitude," he said.
Some major tech CEOs have not sounded off with their views on the debate -- Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella retweeted a statement by the group Reform Government Surveillance, a coalition of leading tech companies, while Yahoo has said it backs the same statement. Its chief information security officer, Bob Lord, is the only Yahoo executive who's publicly weighed in with his own remarks, tweeting Friday that "ordering a company to hack one targeted system is clearly the first step to ordering them to backdoor them all. #slipperySlope #usersfirst"
But there could still be others who add their voices to the chorus. Says Bartholomew: "It's easier to take a position now that Tim Cook has," he said. "He's a very well known CEO, and so I think his face out there provides a certain amount of cover. Once Apple makes a stand it's easier for other companies to join up."