"I think there needs to be a discussion about when the government should be able to gather information," Gates wrote. "Also the government needs to talk openly about safeguards. 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. So this case will be viewed as the start of a discussion....The sooner we modernize the laws the better."
The FBI obtained a court order last month requiring Apple to write new software allowing access to a password-protected iPhone that belonged to one of the shooters who killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California, last December.
Apple, along with the vast majority of Silicon Valley tech companies, has fought back, arguing that such an order threatens customer security by creating software that hackers could then exploit while also setting a dangerous precedent in terms of what law enforcement can demand of private companies.
While Gates has said he is not siding with the FBI outright, his more sympathetic view toward the government has been unique among tech figures.
In a Feb. 23 Financial Times story, he downplayed concerns that the FBI was asking for a "master key," as Apple CEO Tim Cook has alleged.
"This is a specific case where the government is asking for access to information," Gates told the Financial Times. "They are not asking for some general thing, they are asking for a particular case."
On Tuesday, one Reddit user asked Gates what he would do if he were head of Apple.
"Maybe they could propose an overall plan," Gates responded, "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."
As Gates argues, the debate does indeed seem inevitable. Cook has said he is willing to take the case all the way to the Supreme Court, ensuring that we'll likely hear more from both sides in the coming months.