Unanswered questions surrounding the investigation into Apple’s lost iPhone prototype

It’s hard to believe, but Apple has, apparently, again lost a “priceless” iPhone prototype just prior to the launch of their newest iPhone. (If they’re going to lose one, this is when it will happen. Testers gonna test.)

CNET’s Greg Sandoval and Declan McCullagh earned the scoop, a few days ago:

Last year, an iPhone 4 prototype was bought by a gadget blog that paid $5,000 in cash. This year’s lost phone seems to have taken a more mundane path: it was taken from a Mexican restaurant and bar and may have been sold on Craigslist for $200. Still unclear are details about the device, what version of the iOS operating system it was running, and what it looks like.

These guys out-reported just about everyone, last year, during the first iPhone prototype debacle by, well, reporting. Still, I wasn’t very impressed with this story, because it’s so very light on detail, and — if I’m being honest — I thought it smelled fishy. Beyond the lack of any real evidence, any real names, there were bits like this:

A day or two after the phone was lost at San Francisco’s Cava 22, which describes itself as a “tequila lounge” that also serves lime-marinated shrimp ceviche, Apple representatives contacted San Francisco police, saying the device was priceless and the company was desperate to secure its safe return, the source said.

The pitch for Cava 22 seemed really bizarre and out of place, to me. (Complete with a link to the Cava 22 website, and a later addition in which the owner makes a clever remark about how strong their drinks are.)

In retrospect, I wonder if perhaps someone at Cava 22 was the source, having agreed to speak to CNET in exchange for publicity? The other possibility is that one of the SF police officers tipped CNET off, and Sandoval and McCullagh just really, really like shrimp ceviche.

More:

Apple electronically traced the phone to a two-floor, single-family home in San Francisco’s Bernal Heights neighborhood, according to the source.

When San Francisco police and Apple’s investigators visited the house, they spoke with a man in his twenties who acknowledged being at Cava 22 on the night the device went missing.

That man was Sergio Calderón. In an exclusive of his own, Peter Jamison at the S.F. Chronicle threw in a few more twists after speaking with him:

"When they came to my house, they said they were SFPD," Calderón said. "I thought they were SFPD. That’s why I let them in." He said he would not have permitted the search if he had been aware the two people conducting it were not actually police officers.

An earlier version of this story involved the claim that no one at the scene was an actual SF police officer, leading to questions about whether or not someone might be guilty of impersonating a member of the SFPD. It has since come out that two Apple employees, one of whom is a private investigator for Apple, were accompanied by three plain-clothes SF police officers. 

Meanwhile, Gizmodo, a major player in last year’s investigation — having paid $5000 for a stolen iPhone prototype — has been all over the story:

Apple’s Lost iPhone Search Team Flashed Three Badges to Toss Man’s Home (Updated)

Apple Investigators Reportedly Impersonated SF Police in iPhone 5 Search (Updated)

San Francisco Police Now Admit Participating in Search for Lost iPhone 5

No one holds a grudge quite like Gizmodo, and if references to the Gestapo and blustery assumptions are what you’re after, Gizmodo is probably the best place to get news about these events as they unfold.

Jesus Diaz, in response to a commenter, promises that they’re going to blow the roof off this story, and soon:

Don’t get lost. We will guide you. There’s obviously something stinking here. We will discover it very soon. And it’s not going to be pretty.

That’s a bold claim, given that thus far, they’ve been playing lap dog to the actual reporters, doing the actual reporting. As always, if Gizmodo spent half as much time reporting on tech news as they do trying to get even with Apple after last year’s investigation, they’d probably produce content worth reading.

As it stands, their current angle is to highlight anything that seems like an impropriety, at the expense of any real investigative reporting.

Here’s what we now know, none of which is known due to any reporting done by anyone who works for Gizmodo:

  • "Something" was taken from Cava 22, and it’s important enough that Apple wants it back.
  • That “something” was tracked (via GPS) to a residence and the man who lives at that residence — Sergio Calderón — admits he was at Cava 22 the night it went missing.
  • Two Apple employees, alongside a few plain-clothes police officers, came to Calderón’s residence. The plain-clothes cops flashed their badges and Calderón subsequently allowed the two Apple employees in to search his residence and computers for evidence. He claims he believed they were also police officers.
  • Calderón also claims that someone made threats about his and his family’s residency status and that he was offered $300 “no questions asked” for the return of the phone.
  • Apple isn’t talking, the SF Police department seems to be offering contradictory stories about what they knew and when they knew it, and most of the “hard evidence” is based on Calderón’s description of what happened.
  • The device is still MIA.

I’ve said all along that something fishy is going on, and even though we now know more, there’s still a lot of things that don’t make much sense. 

It’s not at all surprising, to me at least, that Apple would ask the SFPD to accompany their private investigator to a home after tracking their lost property to that residence.

My guess is that Apple wanted this kept quiet, to avoid the embarrassment of a repeat of last year’s loss, yes, but they also wanted to be sure to get into the house. If they’d have shown up unaccompanied and been turned away, the prototype would have been as good as gone. Apple’s PI likely knew that they only had one chance.

It is surprising, though, that the SFPD has been so wishy-washy about their involvement. 

Here’s where the investigation needs to go, in order of importance:

  1. What exactly went missing? Where is it now? What’s the deal with the “may have been sold on Craig’s List for $200” CNET scoop?
  2. Why isn’t anyone investigating the fact that it was tracked to the residence of a man who freely admits he was in the bar the night the device went missing?
  3. What’s the deal with the SFPD’s changing story and did anyone actually make threats of deportation?
  4. One of the Apple employees was a private investigator. Who was the second Apple employee?

I simply don’t see a story regarding the angle that Apple would involve the SFPD when attempting to retrieve property that they’d tracked to a specific location. I’d do that. You’d do that, and Gizmodo’s editorial staff would do that. Seems like exactly the right thing to do.

Furthermore, Calderón allowed the search, which wasn’t even carried out by the SFPD. You don’t need a warrant when you’re invited in to search a house.

If my phone is stolen, and I show up at the suspect’s house, that suspect can either let me search for it, or tell me to get stuffed. If he lets me, though, I’m going to do it. Perhaps, in this case, threats were used that shouldn’t have been, but Calderón still had the right to refuse a search, and he didn’t. 

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