Police have identified the unnamed person who found the prototype iPhone lost by an Apple engineer in a Silicon Valley bar last month, a prosecutor confirmed to CNET on Tuesday.
Investigators have interviewed the person who sold the prototype to Gizmodo for $5,000, Stephen Wagstaffe, chief deputy district attorney for San Mateo County, said in a telephone interview. He did not disclose the name of the person, and it wasn't clear if whoever found the "4G" phone was responsible for selling it or how police found the person.
The phone has been the subject of massive media attention since April 18, when the blog Engadget posted photos of the device. Two days later, Gizmodo, an arch rival, said it had paid $5,000 to someone who found it at the Gourmet Haus Straudt. Apple lawyers requested that Gizmodo return the phone to the company, which it did.
On Friday, CNET broke the news that a criminal investigation into the circumstances of the errant iPhone was under way. Hours after that story appeared, police served a search warrant on the Fremont, Calif., home of Jason Chen, a Gizmodo editor, and confiscated computers, servers, and other electronic gear.
Legal experts say Gizmodo could face criminal charges for buying the phone, which could be considered stolen property. A blog post at NYTimes.com on Monday, citing unnamed law enforcement officials, said charges could be filed against the buyer of the prototype 4G phone--meaning Gizmodo.
If San Mateo County investigators are satisfied that they have identified the person who found the misplaced device, and they believe that nobody else violated the law, that could make it unnecessary to search the MacBooks and other computers seized from Chen's home on Friday. Gizmodo and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have said that search was illegal under California and federal journalist shield laws--unless, of course, Gizmodo employees are suspected of a crime.
San Mateo County is sandwiched between San Francisco County and Santa Clara County, home to Apple's headquarters in Cupertino. The identification appears to have been first reported by the San Jose Business Journal.
Under a California law dating back to 1872, any person who finds lost property and knows who the owner is likely to be--but "appropriates such property to his own use"--is guilty of theft. There are no exceptions for journalists. In addition, a second state law says any person who knowingly receives property that has been obtained illegally can be imprisoned for up to one year.
Apple visits man who found iPhone
Also on Tuesday, Wired.com reported that editors there have been in contact with someone connected to the "college-age man" who found the phone.
The man, who reportedly approached Wired editors about buying the prototype iPhone at the same time he contacted Engadget and Gizmodo, told Wired in an interview that people who claimed to be representing Apple arrived at the home of the man who found the phone and asked to search the premises.
The man's roommate refused to let them in. Wired also said that the man who found Powell's phone allowed someone else to take the handset home the night they discovered it.
The man Wired interviewed claimed that the man who found the phone attempted to return it to Apple and also find the owner, but those efforts failed. "The idea wasn't to find out who was going to pay the most, it was, 'Who's going to confirm this?'" the source said.
It must be noted that before selling it to Gizmodo, someone who claimed to have the phone contacted multiple media outlets, including Wired and Engadget. Editors at both news organizations confirmed that they were contacted not about verifying whether the phone was legitimate but about their interest in buying the device.
Correction: This story misidentified the status of the person Wired.com interviewed. The online news site spoke with someone connected to the man who found the prototype iPhone.
Last updated at 6:40 p.m. PT: To include confirmation from San Mateo County prosecutor's office.
Greg Sandoval who writes about digital media for CNET and can be reached at Greg.Sandoval@cbs.com. Declan McCullagh writes about the intersection between law and technology for CNET and can be reached at Declan.McCullagh@cbs.com.