Apple Wanted Her Fired. It Settled On an Absurd Excuse

Apple Wanted Her Fired. It Settled On an Absurd Excuse

It wasn’t very hard to tell which way the wind was blowing. Ashley Gjøvik had even been warned. Somewhere inside Apple, friends and coworkers assured her, higher-ups were having a conservation about how to force her out of her job. There was even consensus among these allies about the route they would take, that she’d violated her confidentiality agreement or placed some proprietary asset at risk.

The only thing giving the then-senior engineering program manager any pause — or hope — was that Apple itself didn’t seem concerned about either. Despite placing her on leave and instructing her to avoid colleagues, the company made no attempt to keep her from viewing any sensitive data. “I hadn’t lost any of my account access,” Gjøvik said. “I still had access to the next four years of the Mac roadmap. I still had access to source code for future releases. I still had access to concept review documents.”

Unfortunately for Gjøvik, her friends were right on the money. The hammer fell in early September with the arrival of an emailed request to “speak” privately about a “sensitive Intellectual Property matter.” Right away, emails show, Gjøvik agreed to cooperate, telling the company she was “Happy to help!” Although Apple claimed the matter was serious, no discussion would ever take place. Gjøvik’s repeated attempts to accede to demands were flatly ignored, emails between the two parties show.

Amid the back-and-forth, Gjøvik had only one stipulation: The conversation should be recorded in writing. Given the souring of their relationship, and other ongoing legal matters, documenting the investigation seemed prudent, if not necessary — not some gratuitous attempt to evade scrutiny. But Apple ignored the request entirely as if she’d simply said, “No.”

“Since you have chosen not to participate in the discussion,” a second email to Gjøvik read, “we will move forward with the information that we have.” Her access to company systems was suddenly suspended. Gjøvik tried once more: “I am definitely willing to participate in your investigation,” she wrote, reiterating that she wanted everything in print. “I’d really like the opportunity to remedy any actual issues,” she added. “Please let me know what the issues are so I can make a good faith attempt at that.”

The next email said she’d been fired. Among the reasons Apple provided, she’d “failed to cooperate” with what the company called its “investigatory process.” It offered no specifics about the “matter” of “intellectual property,” which Apple implied she’d somehow violated. Nearly a week would pass before she’d hear anything more.

Gjøvik, 35, had become persona non grata at Apple soon after raising concerns internally this spring about the vaporous toxic chemicals long known to have poisoned the soil beneath her Sunnyvale office. Among other polluters in the 1970s, a microwave component maker that once occupied the site had let a slurry of acids, heavy metals, and industrial solvents soak into the ground. A “groundwater plume” made of toxic waste once extended for more than a mile, encompassing schools and hundreds of homes. One of the more dangerous compounds was trichloroethylene, better known as TCE.

Throughout the mid-twentieth century, TCE was widely administered to dental patients and women in childbirth, inhaled as a way to ease pain. Today, it’s a known carcinogen associated with childhood leukemia and low birth weight, and other birth defects.

The ground beneath Gjøvik’s office — known internally as Stewart 1 — was excavated in the mid-1980s and backfilled with gravel and concrete, one of several efforts to mitigate the contamination. In 2014, the Environmental Protect Agency deemed the remedies sufficient. But a year later, air samples were taken at nearby homes and schools and revealed TCE vapors had again reached “unacceptable levels.” In 2019, a new EPA study stated the “vapour intrusion” issue had since been addressed but, it warned, a long-term fix still had to be assessed.

Apple, which has its own history of poorly handling toxic waste in Sunnyvale, did not conduct adequate testing, according to Gjøvik, whose concerns about the noxious compound grew after she recalled having once fainted at work for reasons she could not at the time explain. She wanted to know why Apple hadn’t done more to keep employees abreast of the situation and asked to talk to a health and safety manager. Notes she recorded during the conversation, later shared with the EPA, stated: “Apple decided no legal requirement.”

Late in the evening on Sept. 15, less a week after Gjøvik was fired, a letter popped up in her inbox. It was from a high-powered law firm, O’Melveny & Myers LLP. Its previous clients include Donald Trump, whom its lawyers defended over the “massive scam” known as Trump University. “On behalf of Apple Inc.,” the letter began. What followed was the first time Gjøvik learned any details about the “intellectual property” she’d been accused of leaking.

The letter asked her to remove “certain images and video” that she’d posted on social media — a violation, it claimed, of a confidentiality agreement she’d signed six years ago, after starting at Apple. It didn’t point to any sensitive documents. None of the material, in fact, was particularly relevant to the charges she’d laid against the company. Instead, it listed two tweets. The first included a photo of Gjøvik taken by her own phone.

The second tweet had never garnered much attention, and there was a good reason for it: The information it contained wasn’t new. Nor was it particularly newsworthy. Had it been anything otherwise, one of the dozens of reporters following Gjøvik would’ve noticed. They’re dependably ravenous — even for the most trifling of Apple rumours.

The photo of Gjøvik contained in tweet no. 1 was captured by an app called Glimmer, which is exclusive to Apple employees. The app takes short videos of users whenever they pick up their phones, tests the company conducts to improve its facial recognition technology. Tweet no. 2 was a handful of email screenshots inviting Gjøvik to volunteer for an “in-person study” in which “high-resolution 3D scans” would be taken of her ears. Both tweets were redacted by Gjøvik to guard company email accounts and other details.

Gjøvik deleted the tweets as asked, but retained counsel to respond to Apple. David L. Hecht, one of the nation’s leading patent litigators, sent the company a letter on her behalf, dismantling Apple’s claims bit by bit. “While I understand that Apple is not opposed to taking aggressive litigation postures (and indeed has a history of doing so),” Hecht wrote, “I remind you of your ethical duties as an attorney regarding the assertion of claims that have no basis in fact.”

Hecht noted, for instance, that the emails shared publicly by Gjøvik were neither labelled confidential nor contained anything “that could be considered secret or otherwise proprietary.”

“The posted image of the email merely noted what was already known to the public,” he said. “It is no secret that Apple has been scanning a wide range of human ears to perfect its various AirPods products.” Hecht pointed to the fact that Apple’s vice president of product marketing, Greg Joswiak, had spoken publicly about scanning people’s ears: “We had done work with Stanford to 3D-scan hundreds of different ears and ear styles and shapes in order to make a design that would work as a one-size solution across a broad set of the population,” Joswiak told Wired in 2020 for an article touting the “runaway success” of Apple’s AirPods.

The photos taken by Glimmer — shared with the Verge in August for a debut account of the app’s existence — were also not the property of Apple, Hecht said. Had it actually tried, Apple could not have landed a copyright. Copyrighted works under U.S. law must be “original intellectual conceptions of the author,” he noted.

“You have also not alleged how mere images of Ms. Gjøvik, in her home, taken by the Glimmer app, on Ms. Gjøvik’s own phone, could qualify as confidential and/or proprietary information under her [agreement],” Hecht added.

Gjøvik characterised the app as spyware. “It was taking photos of me in my home, in my bathroom, in bed, anywhere I had my phone,” she said. “And it stored these photos somewhere and uploads them sometimes to some place — they didn’t tell us much.”

Apple did not respond to a request for comment.

Gjøvik had signed a consent form allowing the app to be installed on the phone, but she said such calls to volunteer are often treated as a “loyalty test.” Employees, she said, are expected to participate. “Or we’ll be asked questions like, ‘Why aren’t you doing this to help us with these products?’” (The Verge reported similar claims a month before Gjøvik was fired.)

Gjøvik said she still catches the app — formerly known as “Gobbler” — trying to access to her iCloud, even though she’s no longer at the company. “Whenever I see it, I still cringe.”

Though not mentioned by the letter, the Glimmer app is evocative of another copyright case known popularly as the “Monkey selfie.” During a trip into an Indonesian forest in 2008, a photographer intentionally left his camera on a tripod, attracting the notice of a crested black macaque. The endangered creature had picked up the camera and reportedly snapped hundreds of photos, including many selfies. Because the photos were later shared widely online without the photographer’s permission, the incident spurred widespread debate among copyright wonks over who actually owned the pictures. The U.S. Copyright Office eventually weighed in, affirming that, in the U.S. at least, photos taken by non-humans were not eligible to copyright by anyone.

On their face, Apple’s claims against Gjøvik appear entirely pretextual, Hecht told Gizmodo by phone. “In terms of what I’ve seen, yeah, they were looking for a reason to fire her,” he said.

Bringing on Hecht was objectively a wise move by Gjøvik. He’s one of the few attorneys who can claim to have actually beaten the notoriously litigious tech giant. Only months ago, his firm — Hecht Partners LLP — forced Apple into settling a copyright lawsuit brought against a company called Correllium, the maker of security tools used to detect flaws in iPhone software. Apple, which had failed previously to acquire the company, backed down days before the trial would have begun.

“They were very upset that she was, you know, whistle-blowing,” Hecht said, likening Apple’s investigation of Gjøvik as a search for a problem that didn’t exist. “They’re looking to kind of smear her, you know, find some kind of story that works for them, some kind of narrative that she did something wrong.”

In August, Gjøvik filed charges with the U.S. National Labour Relations Board alleging retaliation for her prior complaints. Gjøvik says she was also pressed into discussing an incident of sexual harassment after briefly mentioning the incident during an unrelated meeting with an employee resource official. The only action the company took, she said, was to identify her to the person she’d accused. Before being fired, Gjøvik had also joined other women at the company who spoke publicly about controversies at the company, including their experiences with sexism and other forms of discrimination.

Gjøvik’s charges against Apple are represented by another attorney, Erika Angelos Heath, whose specialty lies in employment contracts and wrongful termination claims. Legal action against Apple, she said, is being weighed by her and her client.

“California law is highly protective of employees who face retaliation after coming forward to complain about certain issues affecting the workplace, such as discrimination and health & safety matters,” Heath said in a statement. “Our case is still in the investigatory stage, but Ms. Gjovik alleges that Apple used purported violations of its intellectual property agreement as a pretext for retaliating against her while the company was in the process of investigating her complaints about harassment and discrimination.”

Unemployed, Gjøvik is now in her fourth year of law school at Santa Clara University where she’s received awards and been published on public health, privacy, and human rights. She’s also working with a law centre that aids refugees struggling to navigate the nation’s asylum process. Regardless of whether her rift with Apple ever breaks in her favour, the experience, for her, has been an eye-opener.

“The first step to get Apple to change its culture is to allow its employees to be able to speak out openly. That’s step one. We need them to feel like they can talk to lawyers and the government and each other,” she said.

Without, she added, getting fired.

Editor’s Note: Release dates within this article are based in the U.S., but will be updated with local Australian dates as soon as we know more.