Bad Apple

iNvestigating journalists


Apple Computers has dinged its fragile reputation as the cooler, less uptight computer giant by throwing the full weight of the law (and perhaps more than that) against a website that revealed some secrets of the next iPhone.

A hapless Apple employee accidentally left an iPhone prototype at a Redwood City, California, bar in March. The man who found it sold it to Gizmodo, a Gawker-owned site that covers the computer industry, for $5,000. Gizmodo Editor Jason Chen wrote about the phone in detail, earning more than 4 million views for the scoop.

Within a week, San Mateo County police and members of the Rapid Enforcement Allied Computer Team—a local, state, and federal task force on whose steering committee Apple serves —broke into Chen's house with a wide-ranging warrant. While Chen and his wife were out, the police seized two MacBooks, his iPhone, a desktop computer, and hard drives. Chen, who arrived home during the raid, has not been charged with a crime.

Gawker argues that the search and seizure violated California's legal protection for journalists' sources and unpublished information. The search may also have violated the federal Privacy Protection Act of 1980, which bars seizure of certain journalistic work products. Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Jennifer Grannick sums up the relevant case law this way: "While a court may conclude that under particular facts and circumstances a reporter must divulge sources or unpublished materials, or that he is liable for his misdeeds, police may not decide on their own to ignore free speech protections for journalists merely by claiming that the reporter may have committed a crime."