The Great Gizmodo Gaffe, and How Apple Made them Pay

Bhavya Kashyap - Staff Writer
Posted on: May 19, 2010

On April 26, 2010, San Mateo police forced their way into the home of Jason Chen, a blogger for the Gawker Media owned tech blog Gizmodo, breaking down his front door and confiscating assorted electronics in the process. It was deemed by the county that his personal effects were suspected of being used in committing a felony.

While this entire episode may have come across as unforeseen to most common-folk, those who follow day-to-day tech news were probably not entirely surprised. The story goes that a beer-loving Apple engineer (pfft, of course he loves beer) Gray Powell had, in his liquored up haze, abandoned his poor 4G iPhone prototype at a Redwood City bar, leaving it feeling alone, fat, and tipsy off German ale. Somewhere along its pathetic and inebriated journey to find its ex, the iPhone was found and sold for $5000 to Mr. Chen, who, having fondled it lovingly into the wee hours of the morning, posted his encounter on the internet. As expected, there was an uproar, and Apple fanboys everywhere were a-tizzy with rage and sorrow. Apple politely asked for its return, which Gizmodo relented by providing them with Jason’s address. The aforementioned hilarity still ensued.

Now, a lot of things were handled very badly on both ends. Gizmodo may have very well felt that they had the right to keep and discuss the iPhone after having forked over physical money for it. They did put in a meager effort in order to find the right party to return it to, but the Apple store representative they contacted actually rejected their claim that they were in possession of the device. Overlooking the fact that they publicly humiliated Powell and generally mocked Apple for the new crack in their security, on the surface, they are almost in the right. California law, however, states that the acquisition of any item when the original owner is known is seen as theft; when the item exceeds $400 in value, the charge becomes grand theft. This particular law was laid down in 1872 and, unfortunately for Gizmodo, is the reason why it alone was accused of committing a crime. Tech site Engadget also indulged in posting pictures of the unreleased device; the difference was that they chose neither to acquire the device nor to reveal their source. Apple’s real concern, in the end, was that their property was no longer in their hands, and they went to great lengths to do something about it.

The question to be asked here is really: what was Gizmodo thinking?! Did they not realize that Apple’s wrath would be swift and ceaseless? The Gawker media sites are a rare breed of blog whose authors are full-fledged e-journalists; posting on these sites is their full-time job. They subsequently lack the anonymity that the authors of sites such as The Boy Genius Report, whose almost sole purpose is to disclose leaked information, do. The legal people at Gawker Media eventually resurfaced with an argument that the tech blog was merely serving as a source, implying that Jason’s purchase of the item fell under his “journalistic duties”. Shield laws have already been instated in California to protect the rights of reporters and journalists, citing that such people may not be judged in contempt for refusing to disclose any unpublished information obtained or prepared for communication to the public (Article I, section 2, subdivision (b) of the California Constitution).

Apple inevitably got its vengeance, but its reaction, too, is not without qualms. The officers that stormed into Jason Chen’s, it is to be mentioned, were not regular law enforcement. Instead, they were part of a specialty task force titled R.E.A.C.T: Rapid Enforcement Allied Computer Team- a multi-national “hi-tech” police squad that just happens to have Apple on its steering committee; other members on this committee include software giants Microsoft and Adobe, as well as Symantec Corp and Cisco Systems. The employment of this particular group of individuals to pursue this investigation has garnered Apple a significant amount of negative criticism, especially given that they raided and continued to search Chen’s home without his presence, and did so despite some general cooperation from Gizmodo.

The four computers and two servers taken from Chen’s residence currently lie untouched in the dusty depths of a case locker while Gawker and Apple battle it out over their respective rights. From a legal standpoint, the entire debacle has been a travesty on both ends, and there is a lot yet to be done. Among the scarier questions that have arisen from the assessment of these events is: will this happen again? Journalists will be journalists, and sometimes they will be unscrupulous when it is felt that they have information that is worth knowing. Jason Chen was in the wrong here, but it is always unsettling when the home of someone in the media is rummaged through by these sorts of external groups. Who is not to say this will not begin to happen over other items, like code or even knowledge in itself? What if other such corporations choose to employ their own privately funded squadrons? The Waterloo community knows the presence of many a large and famous organization, and while most may find it implausible that they would search out every young, nubile co-op who ever broke his NDA to impress his classmates, the fact that an Apple facilitated raid of this magnitude could not be imagined even a few years ago is a telling sign.

The outcome of this skirmish will end up being important not only to those who reside in the Silicon Valley area, but to many of us, as future engineers, who plan on joining this field. Sadly, the only thing that we as spectators can do for now is sit back and watch the way this all pans out.