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Another twist in the lost-iPhone saga

The already-odd tale of the iPhone prototype accidentally left in a bar by a hapless Apple engineer before being displayed and dissected by the Gizmodo tech-news blog just got upgraded to the next level of weirdness.

As explained in a Monday-afternoon post on Gizmodo, a team of police officers on Friday evening raided editor Jason Chen's house. Armed with a search warrant, they carted off a variety of laptops, desktops, external hard drives, digital cameras and even a box of Chen's business cards.

What, exactly, investigators hope to find stored on those computers is unclear. So are the nature of the discussions that led to this search warrant being issued. And as I am not a lawyer, I don't want to get into the finer points of California law governing the possession or resale of stolen property.

Here, though, is what I do know... more or less:

* Whoever originally found the phone in the Redwood City, Calif., beer garden Gourmet Haus Staudt--and, in Gizmodo's account, thought it was a regular iPhone at first--didn't know the first thing about dealing with apparently lost property in a bar or restaurant. You don't take the phone home with you so you can try to guess the owner's identity; you give it to the bartender or the manager so the poor slob who lost the thing can pick it up whenever he awakes from the hangover. This is not a complicated moral principle.

* Gizmodo paid $5,000 for the iPhone prototype and apparently wasn't too curious about its origins--note the cutesy language in its post reporting that it was returning the device to Apple after receiving a formal request for it. As if that wasn't enough bad karma, Gizmodo then outed the Apple engineer who lost the prototype, publishing photos from his Flickr page and details from his Facebook profile.

* This isn't about bloggers being treated differently from journalists--whatever that distinction means to a "print journalist" who's done most of his writing for a blog over the past few years. If I told my editor that a source was willing to sell a "lost" device to us for a few thousand dollars, we would have an exceedingly short conversation. (The Post has often published copies of documents obtained without permission, but we don't pay for them and we have successfully defended our actions in court.)

* But... even jerks have rights. I'd like to know what made this sort of show of force necessary when Gizmodo has already all but said "we bought stolen property." For that matter, why target Chen and not management at Gizmodo, since no one has alleged Chen cut the check for the device?

* There's something creepy when people chuckle after cops break down a writer's door (in their defense, Chen wasn't at home and they did tell him to file a claim for the repair costs) and confiscate his computers. This isn't a game that one side needs to "win."

* This really ought to put a stop to the crazy speculation that Apple left the iPhone in that bar as a PR stunt. But knowing how some people react to Apple news, they probably won't--they may even take my dismissal of the theory as evidence that I am actually In On The Conspiracy.

I await your own take on this increasingly-strange story in the comments.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  April 26, 2010; 8:43 PM ET
Categories:  Mobile , The business we have chosen  
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Comments

It's just one more sick sad sign that we've let friggin' morons run our country. From the TSA snots ("now that they have badges, people will RESPECT our agents...!") to these morons who acted WAY beyond the authority of their warrant to the freaking border patrol's willingness to impound anything electronic so they can get their jollies surfing through your files, we've bent over and said, "HERE, TAKE ME, I DON'T CARE ABOUT MY CIVIL LIBERTIES!"

8 years of Bush and I thought we'd seen the end of this. The fact that Obama hasn't sought to repeal the freaking UnPatriot Act disgusts me even more than its initial passage (and subsequent amendment!). This police state action is just more of the same.

BAH.

Posted by: Bush--notrelated | April 26, 2010 11:34 PM | Report abuse

This weird story has gone from bad to worse and represents the two extremes of fan boys trying to break a story on Apple products and Apple's overreaction to curb it.
Unfortunately, Apple has a point and the law on his side. This poor dude showed a complete lack of judgment at reveling it and provoking Apple. Besides, my ten-year old boy can make up better stories than him.

Posted by: marcohp11 | April 27, 2010 12:48 AM | Report abuse

1984

yeah, the gloves come off. if a lost phone can trigger a police search of a journalists home, we have to wonder: is APPLE proud of instigating gestapo methods?

Posted by: no_such | April 27, 2010 1:33 AM | Report abuse

Rob, you are right on in my book. This IS a little to excessive! And yes, I believe management should step up and be counted as well. This form of Police State action is a little frightening, search warrant or not, this was too much. On the other hand, if Mr. Chen had NOT cooperated, then I'd say this would have been the next step. Hum could this be racial profiling at some subtle level, like that of Arizona? This amounts to killing an ant with a nuke!

Posted by: rcossebo | April 27, 2010 5:13 AM | Report abuse

1984 (great book by the way)...I don't really think APPLE had anything to do with this. I believe it was initieated by some over agressive person in the Police force.

Posted by: rcossebo | April 27, 2010 5:15 AM | Report abuse

Look on the bright side, at least the police didn't shoot and kill Chen's dog.

Posted by: MStreet1 | April 27, 2010 6:06 AM | Report abuse

I generally agree with your analysis. Two brief points:

1. The people in the "stolen" iPhone 4G matter deserve each other.

2. The Pentagon Papers Supreme Court decision was 6-3. I agree with the decision. It was not necessarily the correct decision.

Posted by: Bitter_Bill | April 27, 2010 6:56 AM | Report abuse

It wasn't stolen. To be stolen means someone took it from the rightful owner, knowingly. This was lost and a enterprising citizen who found it(inappropriately) sold it to Gizmodo. Should it have been given to the bartender? maybe so. Should you take it home to discover the rightful owner and call him? That might have been better. It was publicized and the rightful owner claimed his/its property. End of story. The police should have been nowhere near this, except that Apple is a VERY big citizen who can push its weight around.

Posted by: DrBones721 | April 27, 2010 8:19 AM | Report abuse

Good reading of the situation, Rob.

Since when is it "normal" for the police to break down doors and seize all of a person's computer when they are merely suspected of formerly having had possession of a lost cell phone?

If it were, say, MY cell phone, rather than some multi-billion-dollar corporation's, I'd be lucky if the police would even take a report, let alone go all breaky-seizy on the situation.

And your impeccable journalistic standards prevents you from mentioning the mere speculations made elsewhere that Apple's past generous assistance to the California computer crime enforcement task force, as well as Apple's seat on the task force's steering committee, may have influenced that police task force's unusually aggressive action in this case.

Posted by: 12008N1 | April 27, 2010 8:55 AM | Report abuse

Sorry, don't believe that the difference that you don't pay for stolen documents makes a real difference. These guys should be treated the same way as Post reporters, for good or ill.

Posted by: Nemo24601 | April 27, 2010 9:26 AM | Report abuse

They did not buy it to make it their own. It wasnt stolen anyway. All what they did was to get it into their possession for journalistic reasons.

Posted by: uzs106 | April 27, 2010 10:10 AM | Report abuse

Most important, THEY DID NOT HIDE IT!

Possession of the design does not make the case different. They did show the THING.

Posted by: uzs106 | April 27, 2010 10:13 AM | Report abuse

It would be helpful to point out, as the ABCnews story did, that it is unconstitutional in California to use a search warrant to confiscate the tools of a journalist. What the police elite unit did was in clear violation of the law they swore to uphold. So, in addition to engineer, the finder, the blogger and his company, the police have now also been damaged by this entire sordid affair.

I suggest that the iPhone in question is CURSED. It brings mayhem and harm to all that behold it. Beware all, the Curse of Jobs has been let loose on the world. Heaven help us all.

Posted by: lostinthemiddle | April 27, 2010 10:14 AM | Report abuse

The Rapid Enforcement Allied Computer Team (REACT) Task Force is a partnership of 17 local, state, and federal law-enforcement agencies headquartered in Santa Clara County, founded in 1997 to address "new types of crime directly tied to [California's] increasingly computer-oriented economy and widespread use of the Internet."

Apple Inc. sits on the task force's steering committee.

This is just another corporate/government partnership where the message to competition is crystal clear: WE WILL BREAK YOUR DOOR DOWN AND RAID YOUR HOUSE BECAUSE WE ARE IN BED WITH THE GOVERNMENT AND CAN DO WHATEVER WE WANT

Google has this same partnership with the NSA.

Posted by: millionea81 | April 27, 2010 10:55 AM | Report abuse

when you mentioned that the correct behavior would have been to turn the lost/found property over to the bartender, i agree, but what is the law regarding lost/found property? that would be main fact that i would be interested in knowing, but was not clarified in the post.

Posted by: frenchbelle | April 27, 2010 11:12 AM | Report abuse

The Post printed an editorial regarding the student disturbances at (I think) James Madison University noting that it is the law in Virginia that police are not to confiscate journalistic tools and so forth by search warrant but to seek a subpoena and let it be argued in court. This is California, not Virginia, but I understand that to be a more liberal state with more journalistic protections. I'd like to hear whether California law was followed not in a comment, but in the article.

Posted by: Nemo24601 | April 27, 2010 11:15 AM | Report abuse

Scott Adams says it best in his blog: http://www.dilbert.com/blog/entry/thatlost4gphone/

Posted by: micahmac | April 27, 2010 11:24 AM | Report abuse

It seems to me (and I don't think it's been mentioned here) the real fault in all of this lies with the guy who left the phone at a bar. If the device was so valuable, what in heck was he doing walking around with it in a bar? I do believe (and it is "believe" not "know") that Gizmodo is not at fault here (either morally or legally). To me whether they pay for information or not should be irrelevant. Some news organizations do some do not -- to me that should make not one whit of difference -- to me what matters is whether the information gained is true or not. As a purely evidentiary matter whether the information is paid for or not tells us nothing about the relevance of the information obtained (human motives being exceedingly complex). In this case the "information obtained" was a bit more "concrete" than usual -- one could hold it, fondle it, open it up, take pictures of it -- in short verify its "truthfulness" quite specifically. The police and prosecutors (or to my mind more probably Apple itself) over reacted in a most egregious fashion. This should come as no surprise -- just witness the recent negative stories about the rejection of a cartoonist's app in the iPhone store. Why should Gizmodo be penalized for taking advantage of a failure on the part of Apple to adequately protect its intellectual property? Have we now fallen so low that mere corporate incompetence can make a third-party the target of a legal inquiry?

Posted by: eboyhan | April 27, 2010 11:29 AM | Report abuse

I think another point should be that there was a check next to the box indicating that night searches were not allowed but according to Chen's account, they were there at 9:45pm.

I mean really, don't they reserve night seizures for drug busts anyway?

Posted by: realafterglow | April 27, 2010 11:48 AM | Report abuse

It doesn't matter what company produced the phone. Readers are not thinking beyond the company. The fact of the matter is that several crimes were committed here.

The law states that found property be turned over to the authorities, not the bartender, for processing and hopefully returning it to the owner. We used to see this all the time in the news media. Now, not so much because our values have eroded to the point where we say "... what's in it for me ..." or I'll just keep it.

The first crime is selling goods that do not belong to you. The minute the finder decided to profit from the find, it became stolen property and he/she became a criminal. If the valued price of the product is over a certain amount, the level of criminality rises from misdemeanor to felon.

The second crime was the purchase of the phone by either Gizmodo or an agent of the same. Come on people, if they are truely journalists, they should have known better.

The third crime, and it could get vague here, was blatantly taunting the owner of the phone, Apple in this case, with the fact that you have it, and in a sense, even though there was no mention of money, offering it for ransom on the Internet, by openly publishing corporate secrets fount on the phone, and in the employees emails and/or social media sites.

In any event, crimes were committed, prosecutors are publicity hounds, and someone's going to have to pay. The phones user, the poor sap that lost it, has probably already paid for it, with some sort of disciplinary action. The seller and buyer of the phone need to pay for their crimes as well.

Posted by: vinnieboombots | April 27, 2010 11:53 AM | Report abuse

It doesn't matter what company produced the phone. Readers are not thinking beyond the company. The fact of the matter is that several crimes were committed here.

The law states that found property be turned over to the authorities, not the bartender, for processing and hopefully returning it to the owner. We used to see this all the time in the news media. Now, not so much because our values have eroded to the point where we say "... what's in it for me ..." or I'll just keep it.

The first crime is selling goods that do not belong to you. The minute the finder decided to profit from the find, it became stolen property and he/she became a criminal. If the valued price of the product is over a certain amount, the level of criminality rises from misdemeanor to felon.

The second crime was the purchase of the phone by either Gizmodo or an agent of the same. Come on people, if they are truely journalists, they should have known better.

The third crime, and it could get vague here, was blatantly taunting the owner of the phone, Apple in this case, with the fact that you have it, and in a sense, even though there was no mention of money, offering it for ransom on the Internet, by openly publishing corporate secrets fount on the phone, and in the employees emails and/or social media sites.

In any event, crimes were committed, prosecutors are publicity hounds, and someone's going to have to pay. The phones user, the poor sap that lost it, has probably already paid for it, with some sort of disciplinary action. The seller and buyer of the phone need to pay for their crimes as well.

Posted by: vinnieboombots | April 27, 2010 12:03 PM | Report abuse

When you read the list of things taken by the police (legally or not), you really have to stop at the business cards. Huh? What possible use could a box of cards play in an investigation? I'm sure they could have taken one or two, but do they really need the whole box?
This whole thing smacks of Apple screaming to the police and DA for a payback. A search of this kind is usually reserved for drug dealers that will destroy evidence. Clearly the police can't claim they thought that would happen here, when all the evidence is on the Giz website. This heavy handed tactic was a direct attack at the writer and his ability to continue to work and make money.

If this is how Apple can treat a journalist, I wouldn't want to be their employee.

Posted by: Bailers | April 27, 2010 1:25 PM | Report abuse

Rob, keep after this story. There is going to be more to it.

The observation that most police depts. would never even talk to someone whose phone was stolen is an interesting comparison. A friend in the city of San Francisco had their car broken into and their new high end GPS stolen. The police referred them to the PD web site to complete a form. My friend subsequently found the thief when the GPS turned up on Craigslist. Again no police response.
The point being, this is more than a missing phone. And I have trouble imagining a PD kicking down the door WHEN THE ITEM HAD BEEN RETURNED, unless there is something more complicated.
AND the only winners at the end of this sideshow will be lawyers.

Posted by: j_donaldson1 | April 27, 2010 1:41 PM | Report abuse

Oh, another thing. By posting comments, can I claim my home a "de facto newsroom" for legal purposes?

Posted by: Bitter_Bill | April 27, 2010 1:47 PM | Report abuse

Careful, vinnieboombots, you don't want to interject logic into these discussions. After all, we all know that Apple set this entire episode up to generate publicity. I'm sure Apple secretly owns Gizmodo and the REACT task force...

Posted by: teamn | April 27, 2010 1:55 PM | Report abuse

Here's a quick rundown of California civil and penal codes that may apply to this case's theft of IP/trade secrets angle: http://phillipsgivenslaw.blogspot.com/2010/04/theft-of-trade-secrets-apple-gizmodo.html

No word yet on what California codes apply to either party's being-a-total-jerk angle.

Posted by: OneSockOn | April 27, 2010 2:17 PM | Report abuse

We don't know if the phone was stolen originally or not. All we know is what Chen and Gizmodo have told us. And that is that they knowingly purchased merchandise that did not belong to the seller. The item may not have been technically stolen initially (and even that is a fact we only know from Gizmodo's story), but as soon as it was sold to Gizmodo, it became stolen property. That is criminal.

It's not just a phone, it's a prototype of one of Apple's signature products and represents years of industry--not to mention billions of dollars. (Money that directly translates into jobs, tax revenue, etc.) This is not an over-reaction at all. Chen will get his door fixed by the state of California while he has boosted Gizmodo's page count immensely, but buying the phone was morally wrong, and probably criminal. Dissecting it and posting pictures online only demonstrated further dis-regard for the law.

This is no police state. No 1984. We've only heard one side of this story, and a pretty damning story at that.

Posted by: GeminiGuy | April 27, 2010 2:51 PM | Report abuse

The Post wouldn't pay $5K because WaPo doesn't much care about news these days. Becuase if WaPo DID care about the news, they would have, I don't know, read the Gizmodo chain (which obviously wasn't the case, because many salient facts were not in Rob's article, like the phone had already been returned, that there are shield laws in CA, that the warrant explicitly did not permit night service, yet the search took place after 9PM - unless Rob is really that bad a journalist).

Let the police break down the door at a WaPo person's house to serve a warrant to seize the tools of their journalistic trade, and Rob won't parse the situation as closely. It is utterly disgusting that a "journalist" is absolutely OK with this, especially in the employ of a paper that made its bones on the Pentagon Papers and Watergate. They came first for Gizmodo, and WaPo did nothing, because WaPo is not new media...

Posted by: gbooksdc | April 27, 2010 6:41 PM | Report abuse

@Vinnie:
I have accidentally left my cellphone in a cab a couple of times (it fell off my belt holder), and no one at the cab company rushed to turn it over to "the authorities" -- whoever they might be. In fact, for them to have done so would have been a large pain in the ass, meaning I would have had to chase it around town rather than just go retrieve it from the cab company dispatch office, where it was left and waiting for me to retrieve after it was discovered in the cab. If it had been left in, say, a hotel room, no one would have hot-footed it over to the local constabulary any more than if it had been a pair of gloves. I don't want my phone buried in some evidence room in the basement of the police department, assuming one of THEM doesn't steal it to get free minutes.

Posted by: 54Stratocaster | April 27, 2010 7:31 PM | Report abuse

Is it bad that I still wish this whole situation was constructed by Apple as a marketing ploy? http://www.newsy.com/videos/4g-iphone-tech-reporter-s-home-raided

Posted by: paigelws6 | April 28, 2010 12:49 PM | Report abuse

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