NEW YORK - Microsoft Corp co-founder Bill Gates has sided with the US government in a dispute over Apple's refusal to break into a terrorist's iPhone, breaking ranks with the industry in a face-off with law enforcement, the Financial Times reported.
A court order requiring Apple to help unlock the phone of a terrorist involved in a December attack was a one-time request and "no different" from accessing bank and telephone records, the billionaire told the FT.
His opinion appeared to diverge from his own company, part of an industry coalition that backed Apple Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook's warning that building backdoors into mobile software sets a dangerous precedent.
"This is a specific case where the government is asking for access to information," Mr Gates said in an interview with the newspaper published on Tuesday.
"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 Department of Justice is pursuing court orders to force Apple to help break open iPhones in about a dozen cases across the US, using the same centuries-old law as in the California shooter's instance, the Wall Street Journal reported, citing people familiar with the matter.
Those undisclosed cases do not involve terrorism and may fuel privacy advocates' warnings that Apple's acceding to the government may set an undesirable precedent, the Journal reported. The Justice Department did not immediately respond to an e-mail and phone call from Bloomberg News requesting comment after normal work hours.
Apple's clash with the government has escalated since Mr Cook last week said he would fight the court order, drawing the support of peers from Google to Facebook.
Mr Cook's stance ignited a long-simmering battle between the technology industry and the government, pitting concerns over civil liberties against the need for surveillance to fight terrorism.
Mr Gates becomes the highest-profile industry figure to speak out in favour of the US government's stance.
Last week, a judge ordered Apple to lend "reasonable technical assistance" to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in recovering information from the phone used by Syed Rizwan Farook, who killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California, with his wife in December.
Apple has rejected the order, saying that it would open a "Pandora's box" of privacy issues. It faces a Feb 26 deadline to file its rebuttal to the government's argument in court, with a hearing scheduled for March 22.
On Sunday, FBI director James Comey said the litigation over the phone is narrowly focused and "isn't about trying to set a precedent or send any kind of message".