October 29, 2018
Tech companies have a hard time keeping their latest products under wraps. There’s a lot of privacy and secrecy that should surround a headline product launch, but this can vanish in moments when a blog suddenly publishes blueprints or leaked product shots of the latest device ahead of time.
Whether its prototypes being left in the backs of cabs, or sensitive company data being snapped surreptitiously, it seems no tech brand is immune from leak culture.
Things have become so bad that some companies have made serious threats to staff about leaking and the implications, threatening instant dismissal and legal action. How do we know this? The threatening emails were leaked by company staff.
Like them or not (and legal departments sure don’t), leaks have become part of the tech news cycle. How do tech leaks tend to happen, and who does the leaking? We take a closer look.
The Accidental Leaks
We’ve all been there. You’re out with your buddies, chewing the fat at a bar and generally having a great time, then you roll into an Uber and head home, hitting the sack without a care in the world. The next morning you wake up and pat your pockets, only to realise that the invaluable super-secret prototype gadget your company entrusted you with has just made some barman or taxi driver very popular on Reddit.
In 2010, an Apple software engineer left the as yet unreleased iPhone 4 on a barstool. It wasn’t long before images of the phone made it online, with Gizmodo getting hold of it, tearing down the tech, and doing a full write-up.
Even Steve Jobs got in touch and asked for it back. The engineer is quoted as saying ‘I had underestimated how good German beer is’ as a reason for the misplaced device, and no doubt got a ticking off from his bosses.
You would think a lesson would have been learned, but fast forward to 2011, and another Apple employee leaves a prototype of the iPhone 5 at a tequila bar. Maybe Apple staff should lay off the booze (or stick to domestic).
It’s not just Apple. Plenty of other companies have misplaced tech too, only for it to appear online.
Even in the past month, the Google Pixel XL 3 was left in the back of a Lyft cab, and images quickly found their way onto the web.
Supply Chain Leaks
Leaks don’t always come from employees getting accidentally sloppy. The supply chain is fraught with potential for information slipping out, especially in the tech industry, where so many components are sourced from various suppliers.
It could come from news that a company has placed an order for a large volume of a certain part, fuelling speculation about the specs of an upcoming device. Or, it could be someone on the production line snapping a quick photo of the carcass of the latest phone, as has happened with both Apple and Samsung models in the recent past.
Then, there’s the accessory manufacturers. There’s an entire industry built around keeping your gadget scratch and crack free, and these are usually in production at the same time as the device itself, or sometimes even before it.
A phone case can tell us a lot about a new device, such as how big it is, how thin, the number of cameras, fingerprint sensors…there’s a lot that can be devised from a simple plastic shell. Just a few months ago, the case for the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 was leaked online, and this told journalists a lot about what to expect from the phone.
Apple experienced a similar situation when Chinese case manufacturer Catcher Technology leaked renders of the iPhone 7 case. People were quick to spot there was no hole for the headphone jack, and sure enough, the iPhone 7 was the first to do away with the port.
Media outlets and tech companies have, for the most part, a symbiotic relationship. The sites want clicks, and the companies want their products promoted.
Sharing information early is a good way to ensure that hype can be whipped up around a device or service, and it’s not uncommon for journalists to be privy to information to help them craft their content ahead of time, whether it’s a sheet of technical information, or the product itself for a hands-on preview.
Usually, these outlets will have signed Non-Disclosure Agreements agreeing to not reveal any information until an embargo date. Sometimes, though, they break the NDA.
There are many reasons this can happen. It can be down to a story being automatically set to go live at the wrong time, confusion with time zones, or just a good old-fashioned accident. It’s rarely deliberate – breaking an embargo and getting a story out first gets you the clicks, but also sours your relationship with the manufacturer. It’s not something that a reputable outlet would do on purpose.
Apple was victim of such an embargo breaker when a journalist uploaded tech specifications of a 2015 MacBook to the GeekBench site a little too early. This was quickly taken down, but the damage was done, and people pored over the details.
The news that the MacBook was using a slightly older processor did little to endear people to the new product, either.
While leaks can sometimes harm a company, they can also generate a lot of interest and dominate the headlines. It’s no surprise then that there have been instances where the circumstances surrounding a leak have been suspicious, to say the least. Proving that they’re intentional, however is a tricky business.
There are several ways a company can leak its own information. Hitting the button too early on promotional materials, as Microsoft, Apple and Samsung have all done in the past, or an employee getting sloppy with sensitive details, are fairly common.
Samsung published pre-order information for the Galaxy Note S9 on its own site before the phone had even been announced. The page hung around even once the ‘mistake’ was raised, leading some to believe that it was no accident.
Apple managed to reveal screenshots and information about its MacBook Pro with Touchbar in an innocent enough MacOS update, showing off the innovative OLED touch strip in all its glory, a week ahead of its reveal.
It’s hard to know just when a leak is a genuine accident or an intentional one, but one things for sure, they rarely harm the company.
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