posted by Thom Holwerda on Fri 14th May 2010 22:10 UTC
IconWe haven't discussed the lost iPhone 4G from Apple for a while now, mostly because there was nothing new to report. Now that the 10-page search warrant affidavit has been made available to the public, we finally have a much more complete picture of what exactly went down.


The story so far

When we last discussed this issue on the front page, the story was more or less still something like this: guy offers an iPhone he found at a bar to Gizmodo, after unsuccessfully trying to return it to Apple. Gizmodo paid 5000 USD, confirmed it was real, took it apart (bad!), and returned it to Apple upon first request within a week. If this version of the story had been the true one, then I wouldn't feel compelled to write about again. I mean, yeah, there's some questionable stuff in this version (especially the taking apart), but for the most part, I really, really couldn't care less.

Especially since I believe trade secrets are a bunch of nonsense and should not be defined by law. But alas.

As it turns out, the story is slightly more complicated than that; in fact, it borders on the idiotic. Apple employee Gray Powell indeed lost the iPhone at a bar while out drinking, and it was indeed found by Brian Hogan. He then told his room mate Katherine Martinson he found the phone, and was trying to offer it to various news outlets for a sum of money. Since Hogan connected the found phone to Martinson's laptop, she was afraid Apple might be able to trace her.

As such, she contacted Apple's director of information security, Rick Orloff, and told him the story. The police got involved quickly, and prepared to search Hogan's house. Not soon after, Martinson called the police, explaining to them that Hogan and another room mate, Thomas Warner, were busy hiding evidence.

This is where it gets even crazier. The police eventually got hold of Hogan at his parents' house, and after Hogan contacted Warner, they together led the police to the various pieces of evidence scattered around; a desktop computer in a church, the lost phone's serial number sticker at a gas station, and a USB drive in a bush somewhere. Crazy stuff.

And as far as destroying evidence goes, it's pretty pathetic.

The affidavit also sheds light on Apple's involvement and the role Gizmodo played - and it doesn't paint a pretty picture for Gizmodo. Apparently, Gizmodo offered 10000 USD for the phone, 5000 of which was paid upfront; Hogan would receive the other half in July if Apple announced the new iPhone.

After Gizmodo published the scoop, Steve Jobs himself contacted the gadget blog's editor Brian Lam, asking him to return the phone. Lam refused to do so unless Apple provided them with a written confirmation the the phone was indeed the real thing. "Right now, we have nothing to lose," Lam wrote to Jobs, "The thing is, Apple PR has been cold to us lately. It affected my ability to do my job right at iPad launch. So we had to go outside and find our stories like this one, very aggressively."


Ethics

When this story first broke, I found the response from the police completely out of proportion, and despite the fact that the affidavit revealed that the behaviour of both the original finder as well as Gizmodo were a lot more questionable than they first appeared, I still believe the police overreacted, and I still believe that the finder and the Gizmodo editors are judged far too harshly, especially within Apple circles.

Let's get one thing straight: the epic fail that enabled all this lies with Apple, and Apple alone. They decided to allow prototypes to leave the premises, at which point they cease to be trade secrets (at least, that's what common sense dictates), and then, it was an Apple employee who took this prototype to a bar, where he lost it.

The affidavit also details that Apple claims the lost phone is invaluable, and that publication of the device was immensely damaging. "People that would have otherwise purchased a currently existing Apple product would wait for the next item to be released, thereby hurting overall sales and negatively effecting Apple's earnings," Apple attorney George Riley said.

"If these trade secrets are revealed, competitors can anticipate and counter Apple's business strategy, and Apple loses control over the timing and publicity for its product launches," Apple further added in a brief.

As I said, common sense would dictate this device, out in the public (in a bar where alcohol is served, of all places) can hardly be called a trade secret. If it is really as invaluable as Apple claims, then you would think they would guard it better. But hey, common sense and law have about as much in common as polka-dot dresses and toilet seats.

Is the behaviour of the original finder ethically questionable? It sure is. Is Gizmodo's behaviour ethically questionable? Yeah, pretty much. However, does all this warrant massive police intervention, especially in a country where heavy crime rates are far above that of every other western nation?

You decide. I'd say that the time the police wasted by looking for a phone would be far better spent solving, I don't know, a murder or something. Yes, these guys made mistakes and broke the law, but in the end, this is just a phone. The device is returned, nobody got hurt, nobody died, and Apple will still sell a massive boatload of these phones come summer.

Can we please get on with life?

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