Apple, REACT, Gizmodo, and Search and Seizure

As has been all over the web, Gizmodo paid an unnamed source $5000 to get their hands on a prototype iPhone that an engineer had left at a bar six weeks or so ago. The source had apparently tried to contact Apple several times to return the phone, and Apple had remotely killed the phone almost immediately after it had gone missing. Since then, a lot of people have comedown hard on Gizmodo, and their parent company, Gawker Media, for “Checkbook Journalism”.

First off, I don’t think that Gawker did anything wrong, per se. They saw an opportunity to get a story, and they did what it took to get that story. Unfortunately for Gawker, the incident happened in California.

Why’s that a problem? Well, in the State of California, taking possession of lost property, is the same thing as stealing it. Fucking ridiculous.

Admittedly, in the State of Washington, you could be accused of theft if you didn’t make due diligence to return the goods. In California, you are legally required to turn the goods over to the Police for a period of time, in Washington I don’t see any such requirement, but I’m possibly missing something.

One this is clear. Gizmodo hasn’t broken trade secrets law. The moment the new iPhone left Apple’s property, even if it was disguised, Trade Secret protection vanished. However, Gizmodo did quite clearly under my understanding of California statutes regarding theft take possession of stolen property, and given the ridiculous sum they paid for it, they knew what they were doing. No way Gawker would have cut a $5,000 check if they didn’t think it was a legitimate scoop. For that reason alone, Gawker could be in pretty bad legal trouble if Apple chooses to press charges.

Which they have. On Friday, California’s Computer Task Force, REACT, searched Giz Editor Jason Chen’s house, taking possession of every computer and storage device they could find. Kicked in his front door to serve it, since he and his wife were out to dinner at the time.

Now, it’s entirely possible this was an illegal search and seizure, because of Chen’s status as a journalist and the fact that his home was his office. Of course, as the story above points out, that may not be a valid argument, but it would be intersting if all the evidence that has been collected is non-admissable.

This is a story to watch. Surely, Gizmodo’s behaviour was pure douchebaggery, but Apple builds such a mystique with their privacy, that it’s little surprise that Gawker (or someone else) would go through this sort of trouble. Frankly, I don’t think things are going to go well for Gawker Media on this one. Apple’s pissed, and California law seems to be on their side. However, I do think Gawker and Gizmodo will be able to use this situation to further bloody Apple’s nose with bad PR. And that’s where the fallout from this is going to be most interesting.