Apple recently held a presentation on one of its campuses regarding how to control information leaks within the company. A recording of the presentation titled “Stopping Leakers - Keeping Confidential at Apple” was obtained by The Outline. The briefing did not reveal anything earth shattering, but it did provide a fascinating insight into how Apple handles product security.
Director of Global Security David Rice, Director of Worldwide Investigations Lee Freedman, and Global Security Communications Trainer Jenny Hubbert conducted the hour-long briefing. The presentation discussed ways in which the company prevents and handles leaks. The team also provided tips on how to avoid accidentally leaking information. They even shared some examples of leaks that they have had to handle.
Rice, who is a former NSA agent, related various ways that parts have been smuggled out of factories including being hidden in bras and flushed down the toilet to be retrieved from the sewer later.
"[Apple uses] former NSA agents, secrecy members on product teams, and a screening apparatus bigger than the TSA."
David also described the screening process that goes on in Apple’s supply chain. Factory workers in China are checked coming in and going out daily. On just 40 plants, Apple conducts 2.7 million screenings on employees per day, which is more than the TSA. Rice referred to Apple as “one big theme park.”
“In aggregate, we do about 221 million transits a year. For comparison, 223 million is the top level volume for the top 25 theme parks in the world. So this is just one big theme park. People coming in, coming out, there's billions of parts flying around at any given instance. So you marry up a bunch of parts moving around plus a lot of people moving around and it's no wonder that we don't leak even more.”
Often it only takes one part of a device to slip out for engineers (amateur and professional) to flesh out the rest of the device. Rice says that enclosures are particularly useful to leakers.
“If you have a housing [or even just the back], you pretty much know what we're going to ship,” he said.
Alleged photo of the back of an iPhone 8 enclosure. AppleInsider debunked it as a render based on rumored schematic leaks.
When leaks are discovered, Apple is careful not to jump the gun. They will start an investigation into a leak, and sometimes these probes will take a very long time. Lee Freedman related how a three-year investigation finally led to a leaker on one of the campuses. Regardless of how long an investigation takes, the company does not just let it go.
“We don't take a defeatist mentality and say, ‘Oh well, it's going to leak anyways,’” said Freedman. “For us, it's not, ‘Oh well, it just keeps showing up in the blogs and we have to live with it.’”
Lee also said that leakers are not easy to detect. “The common thread is they look just like you guys,” he said.
"They come to work, they don't appear any different, and they start off with the exact same motivation."
The way they handle leakers differs case-to-case. Ones who come forward first and say they may have leaked something tend to be dealt with leniently. However, often employees try to cover up their leak and those are the ones who end up in trouble.
Jenny Hubbert stressed how leaks are “a direct hit to all of us” because it removes the “surprise and delight” of a product announcement. That surprise, as masterfully demonstrated so many times by the late Steve Jobs, carries quite an impact with Apple’s customer base.
"Surprise and delight when we announce a product to the world that hasn’t leaked. It’s incredibly impactful, in a really positive way. It’s our DNA. It’s our brand. But when leaks get out, that’s even more impactful. It’s a direct hit to all of us."
Jenny pointed out that social media is a common place where employees may inadvertently leak information. It is easy to get caught up in the excitement of a new Apple product and accidentally say something on Twitter or Facebook. Employees are encouraged to be extra careful with their social media accounts. Some employees even delete or shut down their Twitter and Facebook accounts to protect themselves from accidentally leaking, but Apple does not require this measure.
We have always known Apple to be a very secretive company, but it is absorbing to read or hear of a few of the inner workings behind this secrecy. The Outline article covers it much more in-depth. There is also a detailed discussion on the World Dispatch podcast.