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Digital Guardian's Blog

Ex-Apple Employee Denies Leaking Trade Secrets

by Chris Brook on Wednesday May 5, 2021

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A former materials lead at the company has fired back, denying he leaked proprietary data, suggesting the case may have to play itself out in court.

A former Apple employee is refuting claims made earlier this year that he leaked trade secrets for use at his next job.

In a lawsuit filed this week in response to Apple's, originally filed in March, Simon Lancaster, a former materials lead for the Cupertino company, denied leaking trade secrets to a journalist but did admit he talked to one - but only so he could get a startup he invested in written about favorably.

Lancaster joined the startup, Arris Composites, a company that makes molded composites that’s actually an Apple vendor, in 2019 after spending 11 years at Apple. Lancaster, in his time at the companyt, was reportedly instrumental in helping design the 13” and 15” MacBook Pro with the Touch Bar; he also helped design of unreleased Apple products.

Apple alleged in March that Lancaster abused his "position and trust within the company to systematically disseminate Apple’s sensitive trade secret information in an effort to obtain personal benefits,” and that on his last day at the company, November 1, 2019, he downloaded a "substantial number" of confidential Apple documents.

“… [Lancaster's] credentials to log into the secure Apple corporate network were set to expire at midnight. But at 10:24 p.m. that same day, Lancaster used his credentials to log onto Apple’s secure corporate network from a location outside Apple facilities,” the lawsuit reads. "On information and belief, Lancaster used this access to download additional secret Apple information before his login credentials expired. In particular, Lancaster downloaded confidential information that would assist his new employer."

According to the lawsuit, Lancaster worked in tandem with an unnamed reporter, agreeing to send Apple's trade secrets as long as the reporter agreed to publish an article about Lancaster's startup if it obtained $1 million in funding.

Throughout the document, Lancaster's efforts to misappropriate SAI, or Secret Apple Information, and get it into the hands of the reporter are detailed.

“The trade secrets Lancaster stole and sent to the Correspondent for publication included details of unreleased Apple hardware products, unannounced feature changes to existing hardware products, and future product announcements, all of which Apple guards closely,” the company said in its lawsuit.

in addition to denying disseminating trade secrets, Lancaster's answer to the complaint also denies that he abused his seniority to access internal meetings and documents. The document doesn't go further than that, saying he “lacks sufficient knowledge or information” to admit or deny some allegations, like that he stole and sent information on unreleased Apple hardware products and feature changes. Lancaster said he did talk to a reporter about Apple issues but only about corruption within the company's supply chain and among its supply chain managers; he denied any other wrongdoing.

it's unclear how the rest of the case will unfold. Apple's lawsuit claims Lancaster sent the reporter a photo of an internal Apple document and that “on information and belief” he downloaded further confidential information. The document doesn't go into great detail about whether there are logs or if there's concrete proof of the data Lancaster purportedly took however.

Given the economic value Apple derives from its private information and the lengths it goes to prevent leaks and IP theft, it’s assumed the company will pursue all legal avenues to ensure the safe return of its data if it was stolen. If Apple can frame Lancaster as a bad actor, that is to say, if the company does have evidence – one would assume the company performed some data forensics following Lancaster’s exit from the company or that it predicated its suit on the fact that Lancaster accessed data he wasn't supposed to - it will assuredly come out in court.

The fact that Lancaster admitted to disclosing alleged corruption within Apple’s supply chain and among Apple’s supply chain suggests the story could follow in the footsteps of the Martin Tripp/Tesla saga from the last couple of years however.

Tripp, a former Tesla worker, was engaged in a two-year battle with Tesla's CEO Elon Musk after he violated trade secrets and computer crimes laws by divulging leaked proprietary Tesla data to a reporter. Tripp painted himself as a whistleblower throughout - he even filed for whistleblower status with the Securities and Exchange Commission - who aimed to spotlight production inefficiencies and delays in its production line.

That case didn’t end well for Tripp however; he was ordered by the court last year to pay Tesla $400,000 for leaking the data he leaked to a reporter. The payment was part of a settlement that ended a messy feud between Tripp and Musk. As part of it, the former did not contest Tesla's claims that he stole trade secrets.

Tags: IP theft

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Chris Brook

Chris Brook is the editor of Data Insider. He is a technology journalist with a decade of experience writing about information security, hackers, and privacy. Chris has attended many infosec conferences and has interviewed hackers and security researchers. Prior to joining Digital Guardian he helped launch Threatpost, an independent news site which is a leading source of information about IT and business security for hundreds of thousands of professionals worldwide.