Bill Gates: No ‘absolutists’ on privacy and government searches

Bill Gates: No ‘absolutists’ on privacy and government searches
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Bill Gates says there are no “absolutists” when it comes to data privacy and government searches. 

“I don’t think there are any absolutists who think the government should be able to get everything or the government should be able to get nothing,” he told Reuters at a Monday night event in Washington. 

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The Microsoft founder and former chief executive defended the company’s recent lawsuit against the Department of Justice, which argues that so-call gag orders placed on technology companies when they are forced to hand over customers’ data are unconstitutional. 

"There probably are some cases where [the government] should be able to go in covertly and get information about a company’s email," he said. “But the position Microsoft is taking in this suit is that it should be extraordinary, and it shouldn’t be a matter of course that there is a gag order automatically put in.”

He said a legislative solution would need to “strike the perfect balance.”

That sentiment aligns with a Microsoft legal brief filed earlier this month. It argues there are some “exceptional circumstances” in which a temporary gag order would be necessary but says the law “sweeps too broadly.”

In many instances, law enforcement officers go to technology companies with a warrant, subpoena or other court order demanding companies turn over their customers’ emails or other electronic communication stored in the cloud. Often, those demands come with an order preventing technology companies from telling their customers about the search. 

Microsoft said it has received about 2,600 secrecy orders over the past 18 months, and about 70 percent have no date for when they can be lifted. 

In February, Gates made news when he would not directly support Apple’s refusal to help unlock an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino, Calif., shooters. He later clarified that it did not mean he was backing the FBI. 

Gates, who now focuses primarily on philanthropic work, is no longer at the company.