Hello new iPhone, goodbye ethics

If you leave your cell phone on a restaurant table, do I have the right to examine it and publish the details of your life? Of course not. If I did such a thing you'd probably set a lawyer on me and attempt to sue the bejeezus out of me. And rightly so; your private business should remain just that -- private.

Now, let's say you're famous. Perhaps you're Brad Pitt. Does the fact that people are really, really interested in you, make publishing your private business any more justifiable? I'm guessing that you're with me so far and that's a big "no" as well.

Sure, if some kind of unlawful act was involved ("Mr. and Mrs. Smith" might qualify) then providing the world with evidence to get the wheels of justice rolling would be morally defensible, but to just expose the private details of someone's life because you can and because others have some kind of obsessive interest is simply and obviously unethical.

So, when a company leaves one of their cell phones lying around, does that give you the right to dissect it and blab about it to the world? No. Does the fact it's a company and not a real person lower the bar? Absolutely not.

So when the technology blog Gizmodo got its sweaty hands on an early prototype of an Apple iPhone due for release later this year, why did it think it was OK to examine it, take it apart, and tell the world what it found?

In case you missed the brouhaha, here's the story: On March 18, an Apple employee (now, quite possibly, an ex-employee) named Gray Powell, accidentally left a prototype of the next version of the iPhone in a German beer garden in Redwood City, Calif., while celebrating his birthday.

The phone was found by Brian Hogan who claims he tried to return it to Apple.

Apparently Hogan couldn't find anyone at Apple who was interested and so he wound up "giving" the device to Jason Chen, an editor at the technology blog Gizmodo. I write "giving" because it was in exchange for $5,000 for "exclusivity" (apparently Gizmodo was the only publication willing to bite).

Chen closely examined the iPhone, figured out what was different and what was new, and then published a detailed analysis of what he'd found on Gizmodo. And when he did that, with the push of a button, Chen probably screwed up the lives of any number of Apple employees and caused hundreds or thousands of people to put off buying an iPhone until the new version is released.

Now, you might cynically think "Oh, poor Apple, boo-hoo" but if it was your job and your effort to engineer a device, build a program, or manage sales, I suspect you'd be biblically angry that some wonk just made your life orders of magnitude more difficult because he could.

Shortly after the Gizmodo publication, Chen's home was visited by the police in the guise of the California Rapid Enforcement Allied Computer Team (the acronym is REACT … how lame is that?).

Because Chen was out at the time, the police did the "logical" thing; they broke down his front door. As they searched his home, Chen returned in time to get frisked for weapons, be ordered about, and watch as the police confiscated his computers.

Here's where things get interesting: Under California's "shield law" journalists are protected from search or seizure in connection with a criminal investigation so REACT's search and seizure may have been illegal.

But what particularly interested me was that the raid on Chen occurred at all. Either Apple contacted the police or the local district attorney decided that this was really, really serious criminal stuff. Whatever the truth, it is over the top given the nature of the "crime."

Of course, if your cell phone, or Brad Pitt's, had been the property in question, I doubt whether REACT would have swung into action with such alacrity, but big business carries a lot more weight than you or Mr. Pitt do. Well, perhaps more than you do.

Then the weirdness set in. Apple employees apparently turned up at Hogan's apartment and asked to search the place! Hogan's flatmates apparently didn't let them in, but what was Apple thinking?! When does a company get so out of touch with the real world that it thinks it has any right to do something like that?

All of the players involved -- Hogan, Chen, Gizmodo, whoever set REACT on Chen, and Apple -- all of them have behaved badly. They tossed out their personal and business ethics for all sorts of ridiculous reasons, all of them wrong-headed.

There's no doubt about it -- it's always cool to know what's ahead for us in the tech world, but there's an obvious dividing line between trying to get advance notice of what new products are in the offing and stealing their secrets. There's also an obvious dividing line between enforcing the law and overstepping legal boundaries. And there's yet another obvious dividing line between exercising your corporate rights and acting like you are some kind of government agency.

All of this mess was driven by one thing: Our ridiculous, obsessive interest in the latest products and technologies. We're like kids in a candy store and I'm betting that growing up will not be on the cards any time soon.

Gibbs is amazed by the lot of them in Ventura, Calif. Tell him if you're surprised at backspin@gibbs.com.

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This story, "Hello new iPhone, goodbye ethics" was originally published by Network World.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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