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Court examines Gizmodo devices for iPhone info

Judge appoints special master to examine Jason Chen's electronic gear and discover information relevant to an iPhone prototype.

Authorities have finally begun examining the computers, server, and other electronic gear seized from a Gizmodo editor as part of the investigation into a missing iPhone prototype.

Gizmodo editor Jason Chen holding the prototype iPhone the gadget blog acquired for $5,000. Gizmodo

Stephen Wagstaffe, chief deputy district attorney for San Mateo County, told CNET on Wednesday that a court there had appointed a "special master" to search the items seized from the home of Jason Chen in late April. The court has asked the special master to collect only information that pertains to Gizmodo's dealings with an iPhone prototype that the blog purchased for $5,000.

In March, an Apple employee lost contact with the handset--a prototype of the next generation of iPhones--when visiting a bar in Redwood City, Calif. The device was obtained by Brian Hogan who then sold the phone to Gizmodo. Police launched a theft investigation and served a subpoena at Chen's home in Fremont, Calif. Attorneys representing Chen and Gawker Media, Gizmodo's parent company, claimed the search warrant used to seize Chen's property was "invalid," citing a California law curbing newsroom searches.

"It is good to see Steve Jobs so animated."
--Nick Denton,
Gawker Media CEO

Prosecutors disagreed; Wagstaffe said his staff considered whether reporter shield laws applied and then decided to proceed.

Once Chen's gear was confiscated, it couldn't be searched until the issue of whether the search was lawful was addressed. Wagstaffe said his department and Chen's attorney, Thomas Nolan, came to an agreement on how Chen's computer and other equipment could be reviewed. Nolan did not respond to an interview request.

According to Wagstaffe, a special master is an unpaid agent appointed by the court to make sure judicial orders are followed. Special masters are typically volunteers, mostly former judges or law professors, Wagstaffe said. They are supposed to be unconnected to the cases they are working on. Wagstaffe said he was under court orders not to reveal the identity of the special master reviewing Chen's possessions.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs said his company was "extorted." To see a roundup of CNET's missing iPhone coverage, click on photo. Asa Mathat/All Things Digital

After the search is concluded, the special master will forward the materials of what he or she believes is relevant to the case on to the judge, who will then present it to Chen and his lawyers so they can make any objections. The judge will then decide what to turn over to the district attorney. The process could take up to two months, Wagstaffe told CNET.

No one has been charged with any crime in this case, and Wagstaffe said the investigation continues.

On Tuesday, Apple CEO Steve Jobs took aim at Gizmodo and Hogan. Speaking at the D8 conference, Jobs said, "There is a debate of whether it was left in a bar or stolen out of (the Apple employee's) bag."

Gizmodo reported that Hogan found the phone in the bar.

Jobs also suggested that Gizmodo tried to "extort" Apple; he presumably was referring to an e-mail exchange he had with Gizmodo editors in which they offered to give the experimental iPhone back only after they received written confirmation that it belonged to Apple. Gizmodo also implied that it wanted better access to Apple in the future.

What came through very clearly from Jobs' comments is that he and Apple believe they are victims of a crime and that they have no intention of letting Gizmodo or the issue "slide."

"I got a lot of advice from people that said, 'You've got to just let it slide," Jobs said. "You shouldn't go after a journalist because they bought stolen property and tried to extort you."

Later, he added that adopting an attitude of letting things slide would be wrong for him and Apple. "I can't do that," he said. "I'd rather quit."

Nick Denton, CEO of Gawker Media, Gizmodo's parent company, issued a brief response to Jobs' remarks: "It is good to see Steve Jobs so animated."

(Watch Jobs discuss the missing iPhone situation below).