Jason Chen’s computers seized

by Paul Carpenter
See Dave Speak SMX London

In case you’ve missed it, a working prototype of the next iteration of Apple’s all-conquering iPhone was discovered in a bar a couple of weeks ago made it into the hands of Gizmodo journalist Jason Chen, who blogged about the discovery and the actual impressions he’d gleaned of the product itself before returning the phone to Apple. So far, so ordinary – just another leak of a tech product.

But Apple aren’t your typical tech company. There’s no cosily informal company blog or Twitter feed where Steve Jobs shares his thoughts with the world. Just a steely and impenetrable PR machine that works to keep Apple’s secrets secret and journalists strictly on-message. Witness the blanket silence that preceded the launch of the iPad. Even though most speculators were right on the money as to what the product actually was, Apple’s ruthlessly imposed wall of silence meant that there was no confirmation – not even a hint – until Jobs stepped out on stage with the thing in his hands.

Apple have invested millions of dollars into the design and engineering of this thing so you can imagine how well they’d react to waking up and finding it photographed, taken apart and discussed in detail on a popular tech blog.

Even now there is no comment from Apple  themselves on this story.

When Chen returned the new iPhone to Apple he included a little note pleading with the company to go easy on the employee who’d originally misplaced the phone.  Subsequently, that employee has been revealed to be Gray Powell – an engineer working on the iPhone’s Baseband Software which enables the iPhone to actually make calls. He is said to have misplaced the phone in a bar while (presumably while using the phone for “in the wild” testing) celebrating his birthday and inadvertently left it on a stool.

Whoops.

Gizmodo, having attempted to return the phone covered the story and waited for Apple to request its return. All of which went quite smoothly until Chen himself arrived home on Friday night to find the door to his house broken in and the police busily confiscating all of his computer equipment.

As Chen is classed a journalist, Gizmodo have claimed that he is protected from Police powers to some degree by the so-called ‘shield rule’ which allows journalists to protect stories and their sources – particularly where the sources may be implicated in criminal activity. As it stands, it appears that Chen is being investigated primarily because Gizmodo bought the iPhone prototype for $5000 and therefore knowingly bought stolen goods. This is, of course, a criminal offence in its own right, and it is by no means clear that the Shield Law would apply in such a case.

After initially thinking “Apple are such bastards,” I’ve come round to thinking that Gizmodo have really played their hand poorly here.

After initially thinking “Apple are such bastards,” I’ve come round to thinking that Gizmodo have really played their hand poorly here. Apple have invested millions of dollars into the design and engineering of this thing so you can imagine how well they’d react to waking up and finding it photographed, taken apart and discussed in detail on a popular tech blog. While the insight this offered to rivals hardly classes as industrial espionage (you try to back-engineer an iPhone from the grainy pictures!) there’s enough clues about features and functionality to wake up the engineers at their competitors .

And Gizmodo’s story of the iPhone’s acquisition is, ultimately, just that – a story. Other than the Apple engineer they hung out to dry and Chen himself, the participants’ identities and the real timeline of events are unknown – leaving just one salient fact: they paid 5 grand to get the phone from someone they knew it didn’t belong to. In order to get a warrant from the judge, the police have to have good cause for thinking that a criminal act has taken place so it seems that the judge either isn’t buying that particular story or that the simple act of admitting paying money is prima facie evidence of buying stolen goods and enough to trigger a warrant.

Right now it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that when this story is finally told in full – probably in a courtroom – the simple tale of a misplaced iPhone prototype will lead to something a whole lot more complicated.

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