Apple comes down hard on iPhone leakers

Last week, police raided a Gizmodo blogger's home after he spilled the beans about the next iPhone. Apple is out for blood

What do you do when one of your employees takes your company's top-secret prototype and leaves it behind in a beer garden, only to have it end up in the hands of a gadget blog? Call in the authorities and let them play the heavy.

The whole Gizmodo iPhone prototype story just got a whole lot stranger after a team of high-tech police investigators broke into Gizmodo blogger Jason Chen's home last Friday night and hauled off an impressive array of equipment -- including three MacBooks, an iPad, a ThinkPad, a Dell machine, two digital cameras, two cell phones, five external drives, a home server, business cards, and a letter from Gizmodo's chief counsel claiming their search warrant was invalid -- allegedly relating to the "theft" of that iPhone.

This all began some time last month, when unlucky Apple engineer Gray Powell left the Gourmet Haus Staudt in Redwood City with apparently a nice buzz but not the fourth-generation iPhone model he was carrying in his pocket.

According to Wired's Evan Hansen, the as-yet-unnamed individual (let's just call him "John Phoe") who found the lost iPhone made some effort to attempt to reconnect it with its rightful owner (or as close as he could come to it). To wit:

The finder attempted to notify Apple and find the owner of the device but failed, even going so far as to search alphabetically through Facebook, the source said. Thoughts then turned to contacting the press about the device to confirm its authenticity and help locate the owner, but early attempts to drum up interest went unanswered. After a few days with no response, the finder expanded the search.

From there, though, the details get a bit murky. Allegedly John Phoe emailed Engadget, Gizmodo, Wired.com, and possibly others seeking to "confirm [the phone's] authenticity and help find the owner," but that email also contained "a thinly veiled request for money," per Wired.

To their credit, Engadget and Wired declined the offer, though Engadget still ran photos of the device, sent to them along with that email, in an attempt to scoop archrival Gizmodo -- so don't give them too much credit. Gizmodo took the bait, wrote a check for $5,000, posted the story, basked in millions of page views, and then returned the phone to Apple.

Apple could have dropped the matter right there. According to that report in Wired, the company already knew the location of John Phoe -- probably via the model's Find my iPhone feature -- and had sent people to his house, though they didn't actually speak to him. There was no need to call in the cops to unmask the leaker, if that's what Apple wanted.

But Apple didn't drop the matter. According to the San Jose Business Journal, Apple officials called the local DA and requested an investigation. Why? Because Apple wants to send a message. It's not looking to quietly punish transgressors; it's looking for a public execution.

This is totally in line with Apple's attempts to squash leak-happy blogs AppleInsider, PowerPage, and Think Secret back in 2004 and 2005; only this time, actual felonies may be involved, so it don't have to file a civil suit. Everybody in this one looks bad.

Gizmodo doesn't come off smelling like roses. First, checkbook journalism is considered one of the slimier forms of the art. Second, there was no reason for the site to out the identity of the poor guy who lost the phone. It was both gratuitous and amateurish -- in other words, absolutely in keeping with how Nick Denton has run his Gawker blogging empire.

Third: Gizmodo claims it's protected by California laws that shield journalists from being forced to reveal their sources. Unfortunately for them, such laws tend to be moot when it comes to criminal cases -- and purchasing an item from a person whom you know is not the rightful owner is a felony.

According to Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Jennifer Granick, the cops blew it by obtaining a warrant to search Chen's apartment instead of a subpoena. The latter is required under federal and state laws when questioning journalists, so media organizations can challenge the order in front of a judge before the source materials are confiscated. Do these laws still apply in a criminal case? That's unclear.

"John Phoe," of course, blew it by demanding cash for a gadget he clearly did not own. The smart play would have been to offer his story to Gizmodo for $5,000 -- take the thing apart, snap photos, write up his conclusions, possibly under the guidance of a professional gadget monger -- and return the lost device to Apple. There's no law against that, as far as I know.

Then there's Apple. No doubt it felt wronged when news of its unreleased iPhone slipped out into public. But it's not like it's going to have a negative effect on sales or reveal some groundbreaking technology its competitors will steal. (They're already plenty busy trying to imitate Apple.)

As I speculated, at first this whole affair sounded like a clever marketing ploy to get attention for a product that might not otherwise have received the usual fawning adulation from an Apple-saturated media. Now it's been in the headlines for weeks. So how did the company get harmed, exactly?

The sporting thing would have been to acknowledge defeat and move on. But doing the sporting thing is not Steve Jobs' way. Does this just further Apple's reputation as a bully? Yes. Does Steve Jobs care? Hell no. Like Hebrew National, he answers only to a higher authority. Even then, I'm not entirely sure who's giving the orders.

Who would you throw the book at in this courtroom drama? Leave a comment below.

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Robert X. Cringely

InfoWorld
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