[ISN] Steve Jobs, Spymaster

From: InfoSec News (alerts@private)
Date: Tue Mar 06 2007 - 22:19:07 PST


By Leander Kahney
Mar, 06, 2007

A judge ordered Apple last January to pay the $700,000 legal fees of two 
websites that reported on an unreleased product code-named "Asteroid." 
Apple had sued the sites seeking the identities of leakers within its 
ranks, but lost the case.

I was talking recently with an ex-Apple staffer who worked high up at 
the company for many years, often closely with CEO Steve Jobs.

The programmer, who asked not to be named, was convinced the Asteroid 
product was invented, a figment of Jobs' imagination dreamed up to find 
the source of leaks -- the old "canary trap."

It's an espionage trick used to find the source of a leak: Feed each 
person in the organization a slightly different piece of information, 
and see who sings. The name comes from the novels of Tom Clancy; British 
spies called the tactic a "barium meal," after a drink given before 
stomach X-rays to illuminate the digestive system.

"That's how devious they are," the programmer said. "They wouldn't do it 
with a real product. There's too many details and too many legitimate 
ways information could leak out. But with a phony product, Steve knows 
what information went where. The proof is that the product hasn't come 
out -- and still hasn't."

At first I thought this was plausible -- Jobs certainly seems capable of 
it -- but think about it for a second.

If Jobs was setting a canary trap, why would he need to sue the outlets 
of his misinformation? If it were a trap, the publication of any 
information he'd planted would be all he needed. Going on to sue the 
publications is an unnecessary step. (Unless he were trying to cover up 
the canary trap -- but this is too devious even for a spy novel).

Canary traps are widely used to uncover industrial espionage. A private 
investigator once told me about a Silicon Valley company in the mid-'80s 
that had a problem losing key customers to the competition. The 
investigator had several lists of customers made up, each sprinkled with 
bogus phone numbers. Different lists were given to different people. The 
investigator just waited to see which of the phony phone lines he'd set 
up began ringing.

Recently, it seems to have become common knowledge that Jobs plays these 
kind of espionage games. Recent stories about how the iPhone was kept 
secret mentioned tactics like nondisclosure agreements, misinformation 
and phony prototypes. These stories were much discussed on blogs, 
Slashdot and Digg.

It's true that Jobs is very secretive -- but he certainly doesn't play 
devious spy games.

Here's how Jobs keeps secrets. Like every company in the Valley, Apple 
uses nondisclosure agreements and code names. There's no point 
telegraphing to the competition what you're up to if you don't have to.

Jobs also keeps information on a need-to-know basis. Different product 
groups are told only what they must know to finish their parts of the 
product. It's a classic cell structure, like a spy organization. The 
executive team members are the only ones who know the big picture.

Take the iPod name. The only department in Apple that knew the name of 
the iPod ahead of its unveiling was the graphics department, because it 
designed the product packaging and advertising materials. Everyone else 
referred to its code name, "Dulcimer."

And then there are the rumors of hardware prototypes disguised in big 
polycarbonate boxes to hide their final shape. One ex-Apple executive 
told me that the hardware is put in big boxes to make it easy to debug, 
just like a Radio Shack project box. It doesn't hurt that no one can see 
what the final product will look like -- especially when prototypes are 
shipped to outside partners for testing or development -- but that's not 
their primary purpose.

Some of Apple's secrecy measures get a little extreme. When Jobs hired 
Ron Johnson from Target to head up Apple's retail effort, he asked him 
to use an alias for several months lest anyone get wind the Mac maker 
was working on retail stores. Johnson was listed on Apple's phone 
directory under a false name, which he used to check in to hotels.

Apple's head of marketing, Phil Schiller, said he's not allowed to tell 
his wife or kids what he's working on. His teenage son, an avid iPod 
fan, was desperate to know what his dad was cooking up at work, but 
daddy had to keep his trap shut because he might get canned.

Even Jobs himself is subject to his own strictures: He took an iPod 
hi-fi boombox home for testing, but kept it covered with a black cloth. 
And he listened to it only when no one else was around.

Why is Apple so secretive? Many think it's a quirk of Jobs' control 
freakery, but it's simply good business and good marketing.

Jobs makes millions of dollars in free advertising every time he steps 
onto a stage to reveal a new product. It's called "event marketing," and 
he learned it from his marketing mentor, John Sculley, who Jobs 
recruited to be Apple's CEO in 1983.

Sculley made product announcements an event, a piece of theater, and the 
press happily rolled the TV crews to cover it. And since the unveiling 
of the original Mac in 1984, Jobs has used the same strategy.

If everyone knows what the product is ahead of time, it's not news. And 
that's why Jobs keeps his million-dollar secrets.


Leander Kahney is managing editor at Wired News and the author of two 
books about technology culture: The Cult of Mac and The Cult of IPod. He 
contributes to the Cult of Mac blog.

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