There's a Turf War Over iPhone Leaks Going on Right Now
"I can’t stand fake leakers."
Steve Hemmerstoffer, a French gadget leaker that goes by the name “OnLeaks,” is at the end of his tether. He’s an established figure in the space, revealing secret products for nearly a decade, but he’s found himself clashing with newcomers.
“Every year, when iPhone leaks season starts, there is a new guy who wants to become famous by posting iPhone leaks, but every time, they do it the wrong way,” Hemmerstoffer tells Inverse. “Because I hate these kind of guys, I fight them by showing what they make wrong. This year’s motherfucker is Geskin… Just another stupid self-called leaker…”
Benjamin Geskin, a 20-year-old Latvian college student, has emerged over the past few months as a prolific iPhone leaker. His name has become synonymous with the iPhone 8, the unannounced device rumored to launch September 12: a 5.8-inch OLED screen, a 3D facial recognition system, a bigger battery…chances are, if you’ve heard about a new feature, Geskin claims to have proof, via sources at assembly plants. He then makes renderings of those sourced-blueprints.
“OnLeaks has many leaks for many years already,” Geskin tells Inverse. “I totally respect him, I told him this many times. But there is something wrong with him. Always against me, always arguing. I don’t want war.”
All of this matters because leaks are the lifeblood of the modern Apple ecosystem. Over the past 20 years, Apple has moved from an obscure computer company on the brink of bankruptcy to a juggernaut of industry, commonly uttered in the same breath as Microsoft, Amazon and Google.
Apple was on the brink of bankruptcy when Steve Jobs returned to head the company in 1997. The 1998 iMac, an all-in-one computer in bright translucent colors, stood out in a sea of beige boxes and thrust Apple into the spotlight. The year it launched, an iMac sold every 15 seconds. Suddenly, Apple was unique, desirable, even exclusive. In the 2001 film Zoolander, which depicts a world of vapid fashionistas, the main character’s agent conducts his work on an orange iMac:
Community sites collected every scrap of news they could about the new regime’s product launches. AppleInsider launched in 1998, MacRumors launched in 2000, and 9to5Mac launched in 2007. Even today, these sites serve as hubs for the wider community: Quantcast data shows the MacRumors website has over 40 million views per month on average.
Under Jobs, Apple sought to keep product launches as surprising as possible by fostering a culture of secrecy. Kim Scheinberg claimed on Quora that Apple reconfigured her family home in 2001 to make sure her husband’s work on an Intel version of Mac OS X wouldn’t leak to the press. The engineers working on the first iPhone were all hired internally, and none of them were told before joining what the project actually was. Some employees had no idea they were working on the iPad until they saw their handiwork unveiled on stage in 2010.
“They didn’t know if it [the iPad] was a big phone or a small laptop,” an employee called “Brad” told Business Insider. “They had no idea. It wasn’t until the product release where Steve Jobs went on stage and showed the iPad that they realized this is what we worked on for the past two years.”
As such, leaks became gold dust. Hemmerstoffer, who founded Nowhereelse.fr in 2007, was something of a pioneer in the emerging space: Le Monde interviewed him for a 2008 story about people who quit their jobs to run full-time blogs, which seems like an oddly pedestrian story by today’s standards.
In March 2015, Hemmerstoffer started publishing leaks under the pseudonym “OnLeaks.” His eponymous website boasts a dazzling array of successes: the iPhone’s fingerprint scanner, the design of the iPad Pro, the iPad Mini 4’s dimensions, and many more.
Leakers take a number of avenues to find these tidbits. They develop contacts along Apple’s supply chain, seek out information others may have missed, or scout Chinese social media site Weibo, where pictures of new components occasionally show up.
There is a level of danger involved in these leaks. During a previous interview with Inverse, Geskin explained that he has to make sure he doesn’t share any images that could get people in trouble.
“Some people in China are now with the police, arrested,” Geskin said. “I think some images are very rare, exclusive, and if Apple or some others saw it online, they would probably know where it came from. Who shared it, how it was leaked.”
But despite Geskin’s efforts, Hemmerstoffer has publicly questioned his methods on a number of occasions. In May, the pair clashed over whether the iPhone 8 would hide the camera lens under the screen:
Hemmerstoffer claims that Geskin has posted a number of leaks without checking their validity. One source of confusion is whether the iPhone 8 will drop the fingerprint sensor altogether, or place one on the rear of the device. Geskin posted evidence in June that seemed to suggest both designs were possible.
“People are confused and this season is fucked up,” Hemmerstoffer says.
In July, Hemmerstoffer accused Geskin of editing images to pass off other leaks as his own. Geskin claimed he shared the image exactly as it was sent to him by a source:
These clashes have received varying responses. Where some support Hemmerstoffer, others have defended Geskin for bringing new leaks to the table:
Geskin defends himself as someone that respects Hemmerstoffer’s work:
“There is a stupid Geskin every year that comes, posts shit, and disappears,” Hemmerstoffer says. “And every time, I’m here to fight them because I can’t stand fake leakers.”
Last year, Hemmerstoffer clashed with “The_Malignant,” an anonymous Twitter user that leaked details of the iPhone 7. Although by their own admission, some of the leaks were incorrect, “The_Malignant” celebrated their success during Apple’s 7 September keynote speech by cracking open a bottle of Bordeaux:
The bottle was posted alongside this message:
The_Malignant’s last tweet was from 8 September, 2016. The user did not respond to Inverse’s request for comment.
In the world of leaks, the line between enthusiastic fan and journalist is sometimes murky. Where Hemmerstoffer runs his own news outlet, Geskin told Inverse that he does it because he’s “a big tech and Apple fan.” A design student at the Riga International School of Economics and Business Administration, Geskin fits his leak work around college. Similarly, in their personal bio, “The_Malignant” claimed to leak “not for money but for passion.”
Others in the community resemble more traditional journalists. Evan Blass, who Geskin and Hemmerstoffer both hold in high regard, is a mobile reporter for VentureBeat, while Roland Quandt works at WinFuture. But in these situations, the tensions are different. Although Hemmerstoffer describes him as one, Quandt does not call himself a leaker.
“There’s a thing that not many people outside this bubble get,” Quandt tells Inverse. “I don’t “leak” inside info. It would hurt my standing with companies, hurt my contacts and also I don’t want anyone to lose their job over something…I find things on the web. That’s actually all I do.”
But just like those more comfortable with calling themselves leakers, the ultimate reward is international news coverage.
“It sure is kind of rewarding to see your stuff covered by Forbes, The Verge, have it pop up in China or on Taiwanese TV etc…I just like finding things not many other people have and writing about it,” Quandt says.
Particularly with a company like Apple, the lack of official news means outlets will jump at the chance to cover your leak. For those that have to worry less about the tensions between official public relations teams and leak sources, the battle continues.
“I’m trying to hold myself,” Geskin says.