Australian politics, society & culture

Sonny Dickson reveals Apple's secrets

The Melbourne teenager with the worldwide scoop

Michaela McGuire

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It isn’t unusual for a teenage boy to pay close attention to news about the latest Apple products. It is less usual for Apple to pay close attention back, but Sonny Dickson, the teenager from outer Melbourne whose website SonnyDickson.com was accessed 900 times in August from computers on the technology giant’s network, is an unusual guy. “No one can know my age, no one can know where I live, no one can know how much money I make. I can’t talk about money, or what I do as a job/outside life. That’s just some of the things I can’t talk about,” Dickson tells me via email. He also writes: “What would the chance be of the article being a cover?”

In August, Dickson was the first to leak photos of what he said were parts for four unannounced Apple products: the iPhone 5s, the iPhone 5c, the iPad mini 2 and the iPad 5. He was also the first to release detailed pictures of the iPhone 5s’s fingerprint scanner. Though cagey about exactly how he came across these images, he has told Reuters that he has five to ten sources in China who buy prototype parts from assembly-line workers for between $250 and $500, and then send him photos and videos. The sources are evidently reliable. The colourful plastic cases of the iPhone 5c were featured on Dickson’s website a month before Apple unveiled them and, just as Dickson promised, the iPhone 5s was released last month in silver, “space grey” and gold. Apple’s fifth-generation iPad is expected to be launched shortly (after this issue goes to press), but Dickson has already released photos of what he claims is the product’s front panel. In August his website received around a million hits. Sixty-seven were from computers at the US Department of Homeland Security.

Dickson agrees to talk to me online. His profile photo shows a skinny boy with a crest of dark brown hair and a pair of white iPod buds in his ears. For two hours we chat about fashion, music and his favourite Apple products. We don’t talk about money, but Dickson directs me to his Instagram page, where snapshots of his possessions are on display: a monogrammed Louis Vuitton wallet, a black Armani watch, a red Burberry wallet and shiny patent leather Calvin Klein shoes. There’s also a photo of an iPad mini that displays an Age article headlined, “Victorian teen appears on Apple’s watchlist”.

At Dickson’s suggestion, I phone one of his best friends, who accidentally tells me where Dickson lives and how old he is. While I’m chatting to his friend, Dickson tweets a screenshot of a shipment notification for his new gold-coloured iPhone 5s. “Finally!” reads his tweet. Asked later if he’s excited about the new phone, he tells me: “I only got it because it looks a lot better than black or white. I love my gold.” He’s thinking about buying an iPhone plated in 24-carat gold. Dickson says he isn’t worried about the Department of Homeland Security’s visits to his website, and sends me the online equivalent of a shrug when asked about Apple’s watchfulness. “Apple is just Apple,” he says. But his friend, whom I’ll call Sarah, thinks the surveillance is “very strange for him”. Sarah says Dickson is thinking about quitting “because it’s just a bit of a hassle and he could probably get in a lot of trouble for it”. Dickson tells me he isn’t worried about getting in trouble. “All Apple needs to do is call me or email me telling me to stop and I will.”

Apple has already made its position on the divulging of unreleased products very clear to another young man. Three years ago, 21-year-old Californian Brian Hogan found what turned out to be an iPhone 4 prototype sitting on a bar stool. Unable to locate its owner that night, Hogan ended up selling it for $5000 to gadget site Gizmodo, which published photos. A police investigation and a highly publicised court case followed, and Hogan was sentenced to one year’s probation and 40 hours of community service.

“If Sonny is just receiving pictures of stolen products and those pictures are not Apple’s pictures, breach of confidence is the most likely avenue [for prosecution],” says Rick Shera, an Auckland-based technology lawyer who acts for Kim Dotcom, the maverick online entrepreneur. “Although possibly if he is inciting the theft or procuring it somehow – aiding and abetting, conspiring – he could still be liable for the theft itself.”

It’s unclear whether those hits on Dickson’s website that originate at Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, California, are coming from investigators or bemused employees. Dickson says he may stop working on his website before the end of this year but, according to Shera, Apple may get there first. “Thought would have to be given to how to take down the website … as has happened with many allegedly illegal or infringing sites, even before the owner of the site knows any action is being taken,” he says. “Sites have been taken down no matter where the site owner is located in the world.”

Michaela McGuire

Michaela McGuire is a journalist and the author of Apply Within: Stories of Career Sabotage and the Penguin Special A Story of Grief. Visit her blog, Twirling Towards Freedom.

More by Michaela McGuire @michaelamcguire