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Apple sues former MacBook product design employee for allegedly leaking to the press

Apple says the employee, whose resume says he worked at Apple for more than 11 years, leaked information from internal meetings and documents.

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The employee's LinkedIn page says he worked on the MacBook Pro's TouchBar, among other things. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Apple says a former product design employee stole information about hardware products, unannounced features and future plans and leaked them to a journalist, breaking the company's nondisclosure policies and trade secrets laws.

In the the lawsuit, filed Thursday in the US District Court of the Northern District of California, Apple outlined a working relationship between a former employee, Simon Lancaster, and an unnamed journalist. The tech giant alleges Lancaster used his access at the company to download confidential information and attend meetings specifically to forward to this media contact. Apple said he attended one of his last meetings at the company, about "Project X" as it's called in the filing, after submitting his resignation despite being instructed by others not to attend. Apple Insider earlier reported the news.

"Tens of thousands of Apple employees work tirelessly every day on new products, services and features in the hopes of delighting our customers and empowering them to change the world," an Apple spokesman said in an emailed statement. "Stealing ideas and confidential information undermines their efforts, hurting Apple and our customers."

Lancaster didn't immediately respond to requests for comment. Lancaster's website and LinkedIn page say he worked on product design for the MacBook Pro TouchBar, the Apple Watch and iPhone, among other devices. He's listed on more than a dozen patents and patent applications while working for the company.

Apple's lawsuit is the latest example of the lengths to which the company tries to protect its secret product plans, and how hard it's become. Secrecy and hype have been part of Apple's culture since its earliest years, when co-founder Steve Jobs revealed the Macintosh computer after a 1984-inspired Super Bowl ad. Shortly after Tim Cook took over as CEO a decade ago, he vowed to "double down" on secrecy, while promising the company has exciting product plans. 

The company's tight control over information hasn't always worked out though. Apple's sprawling supply chain, offices on multiple continents and more than 147,000 employees as of September last year make it nearly impossible to keep anything a secret.

Apple said it "strictly controls" who's "disclosed" on a given project before they're given access to information. Those who do have access to information can sponsor those who don't, Apple said, but they must submit a request and include business justification. Apple uses internal software tools to manage and maintain all requests for its disclosures. 

Apple said Lancaster "remains an ongoing threat of misappropriation," saying it doesn't know how much information Lancaster has.

The company's asking for damages and punitive damages, as well as injunctive relief. It's asking for a jury trial.