Engineering Ethics Blog: Engineers and Corporate Leaks

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.

Sources:  The article “Apple warns employees to stop leaking
information, talks of arrests” by Mark Gurman of the Bloomberg News
service appeared on Apr. 13, 2018 on the
San Jose
Mercury-News website at 

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