How a team of former FBI agents and NSA spies ferreted out insiders leaking Apple secrets to a teenage blogger.
You don’t have to read too far between the lines in The Outline’s Inside Apple’s global war on leakers to see how determined Tim Cook was to stop Mark Gurman, the “scoop machine” who left 9to5Mac for Bloomberg a year ago.
I would have preferred to hear for myself the leaked recording of the hour-long internal security briefing—the first of a series Apple plans to host for employees—that fell into William Turton’s hands, but his four-part report offers plenty of clues.
- Exhibit No. 1 of Apple’s “biggest leaks”—iPhone enclosures stolen from factories in China—are photos of an iPhone 5 that Gurman, still in high school, snagged and posted on 9to5Mac four months before the phone’s official reveal.
- Evidence of the success of the crackdown on stolen enclosures—which fell from 387 in 2014 to 4 in 2016—was a gleeful account of John Gruber’s blog post about the lack of WWDC 2017 scoops in Gurman’s reporting for Bloomberg. “Even [Gruber] was like ‘Yeah, you got nothing.'”
- The description of how a recently busted Apple employee (“For the employee, maybe it feels like an accident. For the blogger, it feels like they are working a relationship”) matches pretty closely Gurman’s own description how he works a source (from a 2016 Q&A):
Q: How did you develop your sources with Apple?
A: It’s all about being personable and showing a track record, trustworthiness, and basically “knowing what I’m doing.”
Q: This is a company that’s known to be tight-lipped. How did you build the trust of people inside the company?
A: Over time, developing relationships.
I asked Gurman whether he was aware that Apple had put a team of former NSA spies and FBI agents on his tail. He declined to respond on the record.
But someone slipped me a link to a 2009 Gizmodo article that describes how Apple hunted down leaks in the Steve Jobs era:
“Apple has these moles working everywhere, especially in departments where leaks are suspected. Management is not aware of them,” he told me, “once they suspect a leak, the special forces—as we call them—will walk in the office at any hour, especially in the mornings. They will contact whoever was the most senior manager in the building, and ask them to coordinate the operation.”
The operation… is not anything special. It is not one of a kind event. It’s just a normal practice, and the process is pretty simple: The manager will instruct all employees to stay at their desks, telling them what to do and what to expect at any given time. The Apple Gestapo never handles the communication. They are there, present, supervising the supervisors, making sure everything goes as planned.
All cellphones are then taken… They back up everything and go through all the other phones’ text messages and pictures. If you have porn in your phone, they will see it. If you have text messages to your spouse, lover, or Tiger Woods, they will see them, too. Just like that. No privacy, no limits.
While all this is happening, the employees are ordered to activate the screensaver on their computers, so the special forces are sure there are no chats happening between employees or with the exterior. They are told not to speak, text or call one other when the lockdown is happening: “It is like a gag order, and if the employee does not want to participate, they are basically asked to leave and never come back.
It sounds like Apple’s security operatives in Tim Cook’s “doubling-down-on-security” regime are more sophisticated and less ham-fisted than they were under Steve Jobs. At least no one in The Outline called them, as Gizmodo did, “the Gestapo.”
If you don’t have time for Turton’s four-part piece in The Outline, the podcast that accompanies it is a fine substitute.