Punishing Security Breaches
The editor of the Freakonomics blog asked me to write about this topic. The idea was that they would get several opinions, and publish them all. They spiked the story, but I already wrote my piece. So here it is.
In deciding what to do with Gray Powell, the Apple employee who accidentally left a secret prototype 4G iPhone in a California bar, Apple needs to figure out how much of the problem is due to an employee not following the rules, and how much of the problem is due to unclear, unrealistic, or just plain bad rules.
If Powell sneaked the phone out of the Apple building in a flagrant violation of the rules — maybe he wanted to show it to a friend — he should be disciplined, perhaps even fired. Some military installations have rules like that. If someone wants to take something classified out of a top secret military compound, he might have to secrete it on his person and deliberately sneak it past a guard who searches briefcases and purses. He might be committing a crime by doing so, by the way. Apple isn’t the military, of course, but if their corporate security policy is that strict, it may very well have rules like that. And the only way to ensure rules are followed is by enforcing them, and that means severe disciplinary action against those who bypass the rules.
Even if Powell had authorization to take the phone out of Apple’s labs — presumably someone has to test drive the new toys sooner or later — the corporate rules might have required him to pay attention to it at all times. We’ve all heard of military attachés who carry briefcases chained to their wrists. It’s an extreme example, but demonstrates how a security policy can allow for objects to move around town — or around the world — without getting lost. Apple almost certainly doesn’t have a policy as rigid as that, but its policy might explicitly prohibit Powell from taking that phone into a bar, putting it down on a counter, and participating in a beer tasting. Again, if Apple’s rules and Powell’s violation were both that clear, Apple should enforce them.
On the other hand, if Apple doesn’t have clear-cut rules, if Powell wasn’t prohibited from taking the phone out of his office, if engineers routinely ignore or bypass security rules and — as long as nothing bad happens — no one complains, then Apple needs to understand that the system is more to blame than the individual. Most corporate security policies have this sort of problem. Security is important, but it’s quickly jettisoned when there’s an important job to be done. A common example is passwords: people aren’t supposed to share them, unless it’s really important and they have to. Another example is guest accounts. And doors that are supposed to remain locked but rarely are. People routinely bypass security policies if they get in the way, and if no one complains, those policies are effectively meaningless.
Apple’s unfortunately public security breach has given the company an opportunity to examine its policies and figure out how much of the problem is Powell and how much of it is the system he’s a part of. Apple needs to fix its security problem, but only after it figures out where the problem is.