Apple's 'sketchy' hunt for a lost iPhone 5

The San Francisco police take heat for trying to help the tech giant track down a secret iPhone prototype that an employee reportedly lost at a tequila bar

After an Apple iPhone 5 prototype reportedly went missing last week, the San Francisco Police Department gave the tech giant an odd assist in trying to track it down.
(Image credit: CC BY: ignacio sagone)

The mysterious story of Apple's lost "item" — reportedly a top secret iPhone 5 prototype — keeps getting "sketchier," says Erica Ho at TIME. After denying any involvement, the San Francisco Police Department now says it played some role in Apple's hunt for the phone by aiding in the search of a private residence. Were any laws broken in Apple's apparent repeat of the 2010 debacle surrounding its lost iPhone 4? Here, a guide:

What happened?

As reported by CNET last week, an Apple employee lost an unreleased iPhone 5 prototype in a San Francisco tequila bar, Cava22, in late July. SF Weekly picked up the story, reporting that Apple used GPS to trace the phone to the nearby Ingleside home of Sergio Calderón and his family. Calderón acknowledges that he was at Cava22, but maintains that he does not have the phone. Apple employees searched his house, car, and computer. Calderón, 22, says he assented to the search because he thought the employees were police officers. The searchers left empty-handed.

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What role did Apple play exactly?

"Many details are still sketchy," say David Streitfeld and Verne Kopytoff in The New York Times, largely because Apple is not commenting on the case and declined to make a formal police report. But Calderón and the SFPD agree that two Apple employees conducted the search, and a phone number one of the searchers left with Calderón — along with a $300 reward offer to turn in the phone — was linked to Apple security official Anthony Colon, a former San Jose cop.

What role did the police play?

The SFPD at first said there was no record of the search, or of SFPD's participation in it. That led to speculation that the Apple investigators had impersonated police officers. But on Friday afternoon, SFPD spokesman Lt. Troy Dangerfield said that Apple had approached the Ingleside police station directly, and that four plain-clothes officers "just assisted Apple to the address," standing outside during the search. In a statement, the SFPD said that when the Apple employees failed to find the "lost item," they left the house.

Is this legal?

If the Apple employees identified themselves as San Francisco police officers, that's a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail. But "I don't have any indication of that," Dangerfield told SF Weekly. Assuming the SFPD officers didn't participate in the search and the employees didn't say they were cops, no laws were broken. But precisely "because the San Francisco officers did not participate in the search, and Apple did not file a police report," says Violet Blue in ZDNet, "there are no records that anyone could request, under say, the Sunshine Act or the Freedom Of Information Act."

What does this say about Apple?

Even if no laws were broken, the story "raises more questions than it answers about both Apple and the police," say Streitfeld and Kopytoff in The New York Times. Yes, "I really don't like the idea of my police officers playing private muscle for Apple Inc.," says ZDNet's Blue, especially since Apple isn't even a San Francisco company. Paired with Apple's use of the San Mateo police in its hunt for the lost iPhone 4 prototype last year, this reliance on local cops for corporate security is "more than a little disconcerting," says Bill Palmer at Beatweek.

So... where's the iPhone 5?

The iPhone might have been sold for $200 on Craigslist, CNET says, but there's no confirmation that the "lost item" is even an iPhone. Unofficially, though, the SFPD might have dropped a hint when its "press release about the hunt was called 'iphone5.doc,'" says Reuters. The whereabouts of the phone is one of the great unanswered questions about this bizarre repeat of the 2010 fiasco, say Streitfeld and Kopytoff in The New York Times. "Maybe the iPhone 6 will come with a feature that allows Apple to detonate it remotely so this never happens again."

Sources: Beatweek, Bloomberg, CNET (2), Gizmodo, New York Times, Reuters, SF Weekly, TIME, ZDNet

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