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Apple has always taken a very non-compromising approach to those who would share details on its secret projects, over the past year or so it’s been going on the offensive, filing lawsuits and sending warning letters to leakers. Now, it’s clearly determined to do whatever it can to get to the source of the problems.
A report by Motherboard’s Vice reveals that Apple has sent a cease-and-desist letter to a Chinese citizen who has been advertising stolen iPhone prototypes, but Apple doesn’t just want the leaker to stop, it is also threatening legal action if the person doesn’t reveal its sources.
To be clear, this isn’t just a leaker of information about unreleased Apple products. The Chinese citizen in question is allegedly in possession of stolen Apple property, likely prototypes that have come directly from Apple’s supply chain partners like Foxconn. So, it’s understandable why Apple is taking a much more hardline approach in this case.
The letter, which was obtained by Motherboard, was sent by Fangda Partners, the law firm that represents Apple’s interests in China, on June 18, 2021. It asked the leaker to “stop acquiring, advertising, and selling leaked Apple devices,” and firmly requested a list of those who provided the stolen devices. The leaker was also asked to sign a document promising to comply with the request within 14 days of receiving the letter.
“You have disclosed without authorization a large amount of information related to Apple’s unreleased and rumored products, which has constituted a deliberate infringement of Apple’s trade secrets. Through investigation, Apple has obtained relevant evidence about your unauthorized disclosure of Apple’s unreleased and rumored products. Your intentional infringement is specifically manifested as: publishing unpublished information about Apple’s new products through social media platforms, including but not limited to the design and performance of these new products.”
A 2019 investigation by Motherboard revealed how extensive the Chinese grey market is for stolen Apple prototypes, which are the most frequent sources for leaks, and it’s a problem that Apple has been struggling with for years.
For instance, employees within Apple’s supply chain have been known to steal parts such as iPhone shells and casings using everything from falsified documents to hiding them in bras, crawl spaces, mop water, and more. Apple investigators even once discovered factory workers trying to dig a tunnel to smuggle products out of the factory.
The most innocuous use for these stolen prototypes are leakers who are looking to make a name for themselves on social media, or collectors looking for rare and unique items. However, much of the market also consists of hackers looking to develop exploits for the iPhone, and old-school industrial espionage — competitors looking to gain an edge for their own products.
In this case, Motherboard doesn’t disclose the identity of the specific leaker/seller in question, but it sounds like the person was primarily engaged in leaking details about Apple products on social media.
Of course, this is something we see from a number of largely anonymous sources, and Apple has already sent out warning letters to other high-profile leakers, although this is the first time we’ve heard of one threatening specific legal action.
Motherboard notes that the Twitter account of “another seller,” @laobaiTD, who went by the name of “Mr. White,” also disappeared around June 11, just a few days before the most recent Apple letter went out. “Mr. White” has been responsible for several recent leaks, including a new third-generation Apple Pencil and the second-generation AirPods Pro, although we have yet to see if there’s any substance to these reports.
Another seller, who goes by Jin Store on Twitter, told Motherboard that they did not receive a letter, even though they’ve clearly shared actual photos of iPhone prototypes in the past, including the iPhone 12 lineup last year.
At this point, it’s unknown how many other leakers have received similar letters, but Apple is definitely making it clear that it’s no longer going to stand idly by when it comes to protecting its trade secrets, and it’s determined to do everything it can to plug these holes at the source.