Apple leak memo shows how to effectively intimidate your employees — with passive voice

Photo: stevepb via Pixabay

It’s great to work at Apple, the world’s most valuable company. Just don’t leak what you’re doing. An Apple PR person once told me there are at most five people at the company authorized to talk to press — everyone else had better keep quiet.

This creates pressure to leak: people inside the company want to show what they know, or help out a reporter friend, or they just make a mistake and talk too much. Apple hates this.

Bloomberg revealed some of how Apple intimidates its employees in an article ironically titled, “In a Leaked Memo, Apple Warns Employees to Stop Leaking Information.” It’s full of Apple’s characteristic clear, well-argued prose. It’s intimidating partly because it’s of the way it uses passive voice: it does not talk much about who catches the leakers, just that they “get caught.” That makes it scarier.

Here’s the memo with my translation and analysis. I’ve marked passive voice in bold.

Last month, Apple caught and fired the employee responsible for leaking details from an internal, confidential meeting about Apple’s software roadmap. Hundreds of software engineers were in attendance, and thousands more within the organization received details of its proceedings. One person betrayed their trust.

The employee who leaked the meeting to a reporter later told Apple investigators that he did it because he thought he wouldn’t be discovered. But people who leak — whether they’re Apple employees, contractors or suppliers — do get caught and they’re getting caught faster than ever.

Analysis: Notice the short, direct prose. “One person betrayed their trust.” But also notice the passive “people who leak . . . do get caught.” Apple talks about consequences, but not who catches the leakers.

Translation: Don’t share with people outside Apple. We will find you. We will fire you.

In many cases, leakers don’t set out to leak. Instead, people who work for Apple are often targeted by press, analysts and bloggers who befriend them on professional and social networks like LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook and begin to pry for information. While it may seem flattering to be approached, it’s important to remember that you’re getting played. The success of these outsiders is measured by obtaining Apple’s secrets from you and making them public. A scoop about an unreleased Apple product can generate massive traffic for a publication and financially benefit the blogger or reporter who broke it. But the Apple employee who leaks has everything to lose.

Analysis: This is full of passive voice, too. But the reason here is not to hide the actors, who are named in a “by” clause, it’s to put the emphasis on the people they are targeting: employees. Employees “are targeted,” “are approached,” and “are getting played.” The active voice would emphasize the press, analysts, and bloggers who are targeting, approaching, and playing the employees. Apple wants you to feel like a victim, rather than humanizing the reporters and analysts.

Translation: Greedy, insincere reporters and analysts want to be your friend so they can make money from the secrets you told them.

The impact of a leak goes far beyond the people who work on a project.

Leaking Apple’s work undermines everyone at Apple and the years they’ve invested in creating Apple products. “Thousands of people work tirelessly for months to deliver each major software release,” says UIKit lead Josh Shaffer, whose team’s work was part of the iOS 11 leak last fall. “Seeing it leak is devastating for all of us.”

The impact of a leak goes beyond the people who work on a particular project — it’s felt throughout the company. Leaked information about a new product can negatively impact sales of the current model; give rival companies more time to begin on a competitive response; and lead to fewer sales of that new product when it arrives. “We want the chance to tell our customers why the product is great, and not have that done poorly by someone else,” says Greg Joswiak of Product Marketing.

Analysis: Why does Apple hate leaks? In its usual clear fashion, Apple’s marketing lays out the consequences for the company.

Translation: We make more money by keeping customers and competitors in the dark until we’re ready.

Investments by Apple have had an enormous impact on the company’s ability to identify and catch leakers. Just before last September’s special event, an employee leaked a link to the gold master of iOS 11 to the press, again believing he wouldn’t be caught. The unreleased OS detailed soon-to-be-announced software and hardware including iPhone X. Within days, the leaker was identified through an internal investigation and fired. Global Security’s digital forensics also helped catch several employees who were feeding confidential details about new products including iPhone X, iPad Pro and AirPods to a blogger at 9to5Mac.

Analysis: Apple clearly has a major internal security apparatus on this. But while they want you to know it exists, including the “Global Security” department, they don’t want you to know who it is. That’s why investments “have had an enormous impact” and a leaker “was identified,” but we don’t know who found them.

Translation: We will find you. We put a lot of effort into that. We use forensics.

Leakers in the supply chain are getting caught, too. Global Security has worked hand-in-hand with suppliers to prevent theft of Apple’s intellectual property as well as to identify individuals who try to exceed their access. They’ve also partnered with suppliers to identify vulnerabilities — both physical and technological — and ensure their security levels meet or exceed Apple’s expectations. These programs have nearly eliminated the theft of prototypes and products from factories, caught leakers and prevented many others from leaking in the first place.

Analysis: Now we see that Global Security is basically a cyber police force working for Apple. But the purpose of this paragraph is to explain that Apple has its supplier network — source of many previous leaks — locked up, so you, the employee, are the only remaining source of press leaks.

Translation: We catch leakers in the supply chain, too. We are everywhere.

Leakers do not simply lose their jobs at Apple. In some cases, they face jail time and massive fines for network intrusion and theft of trade secrets both classified as federal crimes. In 2017, Apple caught 29 leakers. 12 of those were arrested. Among those were Apple employees, contractors and some partners in Apple’s supply chain. These people not only lose their jobs, they can face extreme difficulty finding employment elsewhere. “The potential criminal consequences of leaking are real,” says Tom Moyer of Global Security, “and that can become part of your personal and professional identity forever.”

Analysis: This is the only portion of the memo that does not include passive voice. And it’s about punishment.

Translation: If you leak, you will suffer forever. We will make sure of it.

While they carry serious consequences, leaks are completely avoidable. They are the result of a decision by someone who may not have considered the impact of their actions. “Everyone comes to Apple to do the best work of their lives — work that matters and contributes to what all 135,000 people in this company are doing together,” says Joswiak. “The best way to honor those contributions is by not leaking.”

Analysis: Apple ties your personal actions as an employee to the well-being of the whole company. Subtle, eh? But effective.

Translation: Don’t be a traitor.

Is leaking so bad?

I’m sure you love to read leaks about Apple’s upcoming products. Since the company is so legendarily stingy with details ahead of time, it’s exciting to see what might be coming.

And in today’s political environment, leaks seem beneficial. Where would we be without all the leaks about what is happening in Trump’s White House? Much of the political coverage we all read would not exist without leakers.

That said, I recognize Apple’s interest in keeping its information confidential. Anyone who has ever worked for a company has dealt with confidentiality and trade secrets clauses in contracts. Companies have a legitimate interest in keeping their secrets secret, and controlling the flow of information.

So Apple’s interest is legitimate. However, the tone of this memo bothers me. First, it makes clear that Apple has a major security apparatus designed to track down anyone who leaks and destroy their career forever. But Apple wants to appear less draconian than it is to employees. How can you intimidate people without looking like a tyrant? Use the passive voice. Tell people they will be approached, they will be identified, and they will be punished. Don’t emphasize who will identify and punish them.

This puts the reader — and potential leaker — in the spotlight. And it’s scary as hell.

Writing directly to the reader is effective. Add passive voice to that, and your intimidation will be quite effective. I just hope you can live with yourself when you fully recognize how you’re using language to intimidate.


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