Apple Gestapo: How Apple Hunts Down Leaks

Illustration for article titled Apple Gestapo: How Apple Hunts Down Leaks

They call themselves the Worldwide Loyalty Team. Among some employees, they are known as the Apple Gestapo, a group of moles always spying in headquarters and stores, reporting directly to Jobs and Oppenheimer. Here's how they hunt people down.


"You may want to know about their Worldwide Loyalty Team," Tom told me recently in an email. I read what he had to say. It felt like a description of the Gestapo, without the torture and killing part.

Tom never lived in Nazi Germany, back in the time when the Geheime Staatspolizei had the power to get into any house or any office, at any time of the day or night, without any warrant or reason, to seize whatever or whoever they wanted in their never ending search to find enemies of the state. A place in which you had no right to privacy whatsoever. A place in which you were guilty until proven otherwise.

No, Tom never lived in Nazi Germany, nor in East Germany, nor in the Soviet Union, nor in Communist China. He lives in the United States. For sure, he has never been scared of losing his life nor the ones he loves, like thousands of millions in those countries. But he knows how it feels to be watched, to always be considered guilty of crimes against another kind of state. He knew how it felt to have no privacy whatsoever when he was working right here, in a little Californian town called Cupertino, in a legendary place located in One Infinite Loop.

Tom knew about all that pretty well, back when he was working at Apple Inc.

Operation Lockdown

Of course, if Tom had never sent any sensitive information to media outlets, he would have never had the fear of being caught, only to get fired and sued into oblivion by Apple Legal. But the lack of any privacy whatsoever is something that he shared with all his fellow employees.

"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, as Tom calls it, 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. Usually, they collect them all at the same time, which means that the process could take a long time. If you need to contact the exterior during the time your cellphone is under examination, you will have to ask for permission, and your call will be monitored.

They don't ask for cameras because there are no cameras at Apple: Employees are not allowed to get into the campus with them. If the cellphone is an iPhone, it gets backed up onto a laptop. "In fact, at the beginning they used to say that the iPhones were really their property, since Apple gave every employee a free iPhone," he points out. All the employees are asked to unlock and disable any locking features in their cellphones, and then the special forces will proceed to check them for recent activity.


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."


2009 Is Like "1984"

Of course, all this is voluntary. Management recommends that you relinquish your phones. If you don't do it they will fire you, or they will investigate why you didn't want to give them your cellphone. Simultaneously, everyone is asked to sign NDA's during the investigations, even though they already signed Apple NDAs to work there.


"I was at several events. When they find what they are looking for—which they usually do—the person is asked to stay until the end of the business day. Then he is asked to leave the premises quietly, escorted by security," Tom says. While he's there, the special forces hang around, watching. "There is a lot that goes behind doors that I don't really know about. I do know, however, that they really interrogate people that are serious suspects, intimidating them by threatening to sue."

There is no way to know how often this happens, however, as everything is handled very quietly. The same Worldwide Loyalty Team does many other things to keep everyone in check, from searching out the email history of every employee—which is also a normal practice in other corporations and government agencies—to seeding fake images to catch potential leaks and diffuse the hype about some product introductions.


As Tom was describing all this, my mind was getting back to all I've read about Steve Jobs and Apple, back when he was El Capitán of the brave group of free pirates who created the Macintosh. The Mac was a secret project too, but there was no secret police making sure there were no leaks. After a hard day of work, all the Mac team sometimes played on the beaches of California, careless and happy, confident that this new revolutionary computer would change the world, one desktop at a time. All of them shared information, there were no seeeecrets, and that's why they came up with an "insanely great" computer, as Steve Jobs himself used to refer to it.

And while I understand that secrecy is paramount to success in today's extremely competitive market—hello, dear marketdrones—now I look at this story on the Worldwide Loyalty Team, and it makes me realize how much Apple has changed. From a happy hippie company, to a company that does KGB-style lockdowns and Gestapo interrogations that end in suicides.


I wonder if the special forces have ever chased anyone through the Infinite Loop campus, dressed in their full 1984 regalia.


I wouldn't be surprised.


The write-up is outstanding, the photo could not be more perfect .. I am in awe, Mr. Diaz. I keep hearing "You Americans - always overdressing for the wrong occasions" as he walks into a room in Cupertino.

Others have raised the excellent point that other companies do this, as well - but I suspect none as well as Apple. Apple has anti-espionage down to a science. I have numerous friends that work at Microsoft and have never heard of an "operation" like this.

That said, Apple's products are also a cut-above, and we could ask ourselves whether practices like this are necessary for an over-achieving company like Apple to have the success they are enjoying today. Hard to say.