Should Apple be so hard on secret-leakers?

A recent Bloomberg News item describes how Apple is going to great lengths to keep its engineers from leaking secrets to the media. Historically, Apple has kept the public in the dark about its plans unless and until the company wants to reveal them, usually at a trade show where CEO Tim Cook or another leader gets to present the new product or feature amid ballyhoo and drama.

Leaks spoil the surprise, and so it's understandable that the corporation wants to suppress them. But it hasn't been able to do that completely, and a recently published memo (also leaked, presumably) gives us some insight into the thinking that goes on at one of the world's largest tech companies about secrecy and leaks.

The memo, which was posted on the company's internal blog, says that in March a leaker who told outsiders about plans for Apple's software roadmap was caught and fired. He didn't think he'd be caught, but the memo claims that in 2017, Apple caught 29 leakers who were either Apple employees, contractors, or suppliers, and 12 were arrested. The memo points out that while a person may not start out intending to be a leaker, media people befriending you on Facebook probably have only one thing in mind—to find out what secrets you know. If you're caught, you will not only lose your job at Apple and possibly face arrest, but you'll find it hard to get work in the industry anywhere else.

The overall tone of the memo reminds me of those World War II propaganda posters that showed Hitler and Mussolini with huge ears leaning next to a sauced-looking GI at a bar who is obviously spilling military secrets to a good-looking gal who's writing them down under the table on a notebook strapped to her leg. Maybe I'm combining a couple of posters there, but the point is that large organizations with secrets to keep have to convince their workers that it's a serious moral failing to tell confidential information to outsiders.

The negative consequence of talking to spies in wartime is pretty obvious: the enemy is out there to kill you and your fellow soldiers, and so why would you do anything that would make the enemy's job easier? In the case of corporate secrets, the worst negative consequences of blabbing are not so clear. I'm not aware that anyone outside of Apple has succeeded in marketing a look-alike knockoff iPad or iPhone, because such an achievement would require more than just a few random leaks to do.

But the real issue is control: control of information that Apple wants to release only when it suits its plans to do so. As the article points out, the huge public investment in Apple stock creates a powerful incentive for reporters to find out what the company is up to in advance of Apple's planned announcements, because anything that affects the firm's stock price is of interest to its investors. Hence the steady flow of leaks about product releases, features, and the timing of new products, despite Apple's stern memos about the despicability of leaking on the part of its engineers.

If Apple is like most tech corporations, every engineer (and maybe every employee down to the janitors who clean the floors at 1 Infinite Loop, for all I know) is made to sign a hiring agreement which, among other things, binds them to keep secret information secret. So at a minimum, if an engineer leaks information to a reporter, the engineer is violating that agreement.

There are situations in which such an action can be justified, but they are rare. It's called whistleblowing. If an engineer knows of a really bad situation that threatens public safety, for example, and supervisors refuse to do anything about it, sometimes the engineer is justified in going outside the company altogether to a reporter or government official in order to remedy the situation. But none of the leaks that Apple is ticked off about seem to fit in that category.

Software-intensive businesses like Apple can't rely only on patents to keep themselves ahead of the competition. That is why trade secrecy plays such an important role in highly competitive businesses like consumer technology, and why Apple gets so upset when one of its engineers leaks confidential information. Especially in the phone market, Apple is not the only player in town, and its concerns that important innovations it has expended a lot of effort on will be stolen by Samsung or another firm are real ones.

This is another example of a general rule about professional ethics: with specialized knowledge comes specialized responsibilities. Engineers whose work involves secret information that would harm the company's interests if conveyed to outsiders have an obligation to keep that information confidential. Leakers have all sorts of motivations, ranging from the temptation to yield to the flattery of a reporter, to a desire for revenge for alleged mistreatment at work. But working for a company, as the memo points out, is a relationship of trust. And trust violated is no longer trust.

I'm not saying that Apple's secrecy policies are always justified. In previous blogs, I have discussed some things that Apple does that do not appear to be in the best interest of its consumers. And depending on the circumstances, it might be serving a higher morality for an engineer to let the public know that Apple is dealing unfairly with them.

But whatever the reason for a leak, any engineer who deliberately leaks information should be prepared for the consequences. Even whistleblowers whose actions appear to be completely justified in retrospect usually end up getting fired and becoming a pariah, not only in the company they blow the whistle on, but often in their entire industry. It's not fair when that happens, but it happens.

Secrecy is a strain on those who keep secrets, and now and then secrecy is used to cover up wrongdoing. But most of the time, tech companies have good reasons for their secrets, and any engineer who presumes to ignore those reasons and talk to outsiders is taking a career-threatening risk.

Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog Engineering Ethics, which is a MercatorNet partner site. His ebook Ethical and Otherwise: Engineering In the Headlines is available in Kindle format and also in the iTunes store.  


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