Apple's Cozy Relationship with Law Enforcement Raises Questions [UPDATED]


I spent Labor Day weekend trying to wrap my brain around the case of the latest missing iPhone prototype. This time, however, it's happening in the part of San Francisco I know and love best.


It seems that back in July, an Apple employee brought what may have been an early version of the iPhone 5 to a tequila joint in my neighborhood; I've never been in Cava 22, but it looks nice from the street. Somewhere along the way, the device went missing. The Apple employee presumably informed corporate security, and the phone was traced to a residence on Anderson Street, in the Bernal Heights neighborhood of the city.Apple security apparently contacted the San Francisco Police Department's Mission Station; it's a quirk of San Francisco that while the Mission and Bernal Heights share a ZIP code and a central telephone office, Bernal falls into the SFPD's Ingleside District. Once Apple's team found the right people to talk to at Ingleside, they apparently coordinated a visit to the Anderson Street residence, with a party of four plainclothes officers and two Apple employees.

This is where things get sticky. That's because property crimes are a low priority for Ingleside; the officers working out of that station have a 6 percent clearance rate for property crimes, compared with a 39 percent clearance rate for violent crimes. No doubt the Ingleside officers were simply trying to extend a professional courtesy to Apple's investigators by letting them ride along. But ambitious cops looking for a job after retiring from the department would presumably be eager to do a favor for Apple's lead investigator; according to his LinkedIn page (which came down shortly after local alternative newspaper SF Weekly interviewed the Anderson Street resident) he retired from the San Jose police a few years ago. In particular, they would have understood why Apple's investigator didn't want to file a missing property report.

So this party of four SF cops, one ex-cop and another civilian show up on the doorstep of a man who had been at Cava 22 the night before (Apple's investigators apparently convinced Cava 22's management to let them go through credit card receipts, which they somehow connected to the Anderson Street residence) and according to reports in local media, flashed some badges, identified themselves as police officers, and asked to search the residence.

Now, the reports are unclear as to who flashed what badge and what exactly was said; if half-a-dozen cop-looking people showed up on my doorstep, and Apple's investigators kept mum, it would be reasonable to assume that they too were SFPD. But I would have asked to see a warrant before letting any of these folks through my front door; the man who answered the door on Anderson Street didn't. According to reports, the only investigators who entered the residence were from Apple; the plainclothes officers had enough smarts to stay outside.

Apple's investigators apparently found nothing in this search, and as near as anyone can determine this prototype is still missing, almost a month and a half after it was lost.

So I had a few questions to sort through this past weekend:

  • First, how did another prototype go missing in nearly identical circumstances to last year's events? Have Apple's product testers and product managers learned nothing from experience? It seems to me that if you send a prototype device into the field, you send it with someone who's not going to get falling-down drunk and lose the damn thing. Or if you really think this prototype is "priceless" (in the words of Apple's investigators as relayed to the SFPD's brass) send it with someone from Apple security whose job it is to make sure this doesn't happen. Truly priceless things (such as the Stanley Cup) have a dedicated escort; you'd think Apple could afford a proper security detail.
  • Second, as a San Francisco taxpayer, I have a big problem with the SFPD's handling of the situation. Let's say I got drunk this weekend and lost my phone in a bar; if I showed up at Ingleside or Mission stations asking for the police's help in recovering my phone, does anyone think I wouldn't have to fill out a report before anything else could happen? I understand that police like to help fellow officers, especially well-connected ones; that could justify one plainclothes officer going with Apple's investigators to Anderson Street, but four? Really?
  • Third, is it Apple's policy for its investigators to pass themselves off as police? I know I would be fired for a similar misrepresentation.
  • Finally, where's the phone now? Is it still in the 94110, or has it left for places where Apple has a lot less influence over police than it does here in the Bay Area?
All I know is that this story isn't over yet, not by a long shot.

UPDATED 9/8: As I said, this isn't over. Late yesterday afternoon, the Chronicle reported that although the four SFPD officers remain on active duty, the department is investigating their actions.