Police seize computers in 'lost' iPhone case

Police task force grabs Gizmodo editor's computers, hard drives, cameras in search for evidence of possible felony

Acting on a warrant issued Friday, California police seized personal computers belonging to the Gizmodo editor who broke the iPhone prototype story last week, a district attorney for San Mateo County confirmed today.

According to documents posted on Gizmodo , authorities from San Mateo County seized six computers belonging to Jason Chen, an editor of Gizmodo . Chen wrote the original story, published a week ago, that revealed details of a prototype of the next-generation iPhone , which the site admitted purchasing for $5,000.

Stephen Wagstaffe, chief deputy district attorney for San Mateo County, confirmed that the warrant as posted by Gizmodo was legitimate. He also confirmed that the REACT (Rapid Enforcement Allied Computer Team), a multi-county task force that investigates high-tech crimes in the Silicon Valley area, served the warrant and removed the computers from Chen's home. REACT has an office in San Mateo County.

Redwood City, the site of a bar where Gizmodo said an Apple software engineer left the prototype iPhone last month, is located in San Mateo County. According to Gizmodo , a fellow bar patron took the iPhone after the Apple employee left it behind. It is not known whether that patron was the person who later sold the device to Gizmodo . The seller's identity has not been disclosed.

"When I got home I noticed the garage door was half-open, and when I tried to open it, officers came out and said they had a warrant to search my house and any vehicles on the property 'in my control,' " Chen said in a message posted on Gizmo today.

The police broke down Chen's front door, he said, to gain entry to his home.

According to the warrant that Gizmodo published -- and that Wagstaffe confirmed was real -- the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office had "demonstrated that there is probable cause to believe that the property described herein ... is lawfully sizeable [sic] pursuant to Penal Code Section 1524 ... in that ... it was used as the means of committing a felony [or] it tends to show that a felony has been committed or that a particular person has committed a felony."

Among the items seized from Chen's home were four laptops -- including three Apple notebooks -- a Hewlett-Packard server, two Dell desktop computers, several hard drives, two digital cameras, an iPhone, an iPad and other hardware.

Gizmodo also published a letter written by Garby Darbyshire, the chief operating officer for New York-based Gawker Media, the company that runs Gizmodo , to someone named "Detective Brand." Darbyshire argued that the warrant was invalid because it targeted Chen, a journalist, who is protected under California law from such searches.

Darbyshire also said he had sent an e-mail to Chen to that effect earlier in the day; Chen was to show police the e-mail if they tried to search his home.

"I then asked ... if they had seen the e-mail," Chen said in his statement on the Gizmodo site. "They said that they did, and then said that they took it into evidence."

Wagstaffe confirmed that the authorities had seen Darbyshire's e-mail.

Last Tuesday, Brian Lam, Gizmodo 's editorial director, acknowledged that the prototype had been stolen, not lost. "Just so you know, we didn't know this was stolen when we bought it," Lam said in a blog post that described Apple's request for the iPhone's return . Gizmodo later said that it had returned the iPhone to Apple.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld . Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@ix.netcom.com .

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