April 27, 2010 12:05 am

Reporter’s computers seized in iPhone probe

Police investigating how an iPhone prototype ended up being reviewed on a website have seized computers from a journalist’s home.

However, in a suggestion that the matter had gone too far, the local prosecutor’s office said on Monday that it was looking into whether the raid violated laws designed to protect reporters’ sources.

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“They have not gone through the material. We’re going to resolve that issue first,” said Steve Wagstaffe, chief deputy district attorney for California’s San Mateo County.

The iPhone in question was left behind in a Silicon Valley bar. After that, according to the gadget news site Gizmodo, someone picked it up and sold it to the site for $5,000.

Gizmodo published an analysis of the apparent features of what it called “the next iPhone”, and four times as many people visited the site as usual. Gizmodo eventually gave the phone back to Apple, which goes to great lengths to stage-manage product announcements for maximum impact.

Apple and the employee who lost the phone complained to the authorities, Mr Wagstaffe said, and police are pursuing the theory that the finder of the phone had an obligation to return it to the rightful owner.

“If you pay your bill at a restaurant and leave your wallet on table and walk out, then someone sitting there says I’m going to get it,’ that’s not lost property, that’s old-fashioned theft”, said Mr Wagstaffe.

Extending that theory, police believe Gizmodo or its employee, Jason Chen, could have run afoul of laws against knowingly receiving stolen property.

But Gizmodo owner Gawker Media and others said that the police went too far in pursuit of their case.

Gaby Darbyshire, Gawker chief operating officer, complained that a California law forbids search warrants seeking “unpublished information” from being executed against journalists, because that data might reveal confidential sources.

Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said that a federal privacy law passed 30 years ago also prohibited such seizures. “As far as I’m concerned, they broke federal law when they seized newsgathering materials from a reporter,” she said.

Unless the reporter was suspected of murder or another major crime, Ms Dalglish said, the only permitted way to go after notes and other records was to get a subpoena, which the reporter can then try to block in court. A search warrant did not allow for that sort of a hearing.

Apple declined to comment. Although these days most of press coverage the company gets is overwhelmingly positive – as was the Gizmodo review of the forthcoming iPhone – it has used heavy handed tactics in the past.

In 2005, it sued a ThinkSecret, an Apple blog run by a college student, for misappropriating trade secrets. The case settled in 2007 when Apple paid an undisclosed amount of money and the student closed his website.

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