Why Apple Couldn't Get The Lost iPhone Back

It's such an obvious question: Why couldn't Apple track this phone down? As it turns out, they may have had two chances to get it back - and blown them both.

The timeline of the night goes something like this: On March 18th, an Apple engineer with a top-secret, next-generation iPhone prototype went to a bar. It was his birthday. Some time later, he left the bar. His phone, left on a barstool, didn't.

What followed was something of a juggling act: a drunk patron found the phone, and assumed it belonged to a member of another party at the bar, with whom he left the handset. A member of the party recognised, vaguely, that the phone was something out of the ordinary. According to what we'd assume to be standard Apple security protocol, the phone was bricked almost immediately. (In case people are concerned that Apple is only finding out now that a phone went missing, make no mistake, they knew the engineer lost it almost immediately.)

Some time later, it was passed to us. (We paid $US5000 for it.) For nearly a week we investigated it thoroughly, ascertained its authenticity, then posted about it. But what about the three weeks before that? Three weeks during which Apple presumably tried - and obviously failed - to get their phone back. Was Apple looking for it? Early on, the discoverer actually tried to give the phone back. So what went wrong? And how did this happen in the first place?

A Failed Handoff

So you recognise this handset as an iPhone - it looks and works like an iPhone, and it's even disguised as an iPhone 3GS. It's not password protected (!), it's running an OS that looks like the normal iPhone OS only a little different, and it has Facebook and other apps running. (Our source says he didn't poke around too deeply.) Hours later - before the next morning, actually - it didn't work.

The assumption is that it was wiped remotely as soon as either the engineer or Apple realised it was lost - probably later that night. An obvious course of action would be to call Apple. And as we reported before, that's exactly what happened - our source started dialling Apple contact and support numbers. He was turned away and given a support ticket number.

Here's how it went down, allegedly, from the perspective of the Apple reps who got the call:

I work for AppleCare as a tier 2 agent and before the whole thing about a leak hit the Internet the guy working next to me got the call from the guy looking to return the phone. From our point of view it seemed as a hoax or that the guy had a knockoff, internally apple doesn't tell us anything and we haven't gotten any notices or anything about a lost phone, much less anything stating we are making a new one.  When the guy called us he gave us a vague description and couldn't provide pics, so like I mentioned previously, we thought it was a china knockoff the guy found. We wouldn't have any idea what to do with it and that's what sucks about working for apple, we're given just enough info to try and help people but not enough info to do anything if someone calls like this.

If the guy could have provided pictures it would have been sent to our engineers and then I'm sure we'd have gotten somewhere from there, but because we had so little to go on we pushed it off as bogus.

And seriously, what else could have happened? There is no way - not a chance - that a middle-level customer service rep would have known anything about the next iPhone. Put yourself in his theoretical shoes:

Hello, thanks for calling AppleCare

Hello. I think I have some kind of iPhone prototype, or something!

What?

Yeah, it's kinda square, and it doesn't work. I found it in a bar.

OK! Thanks for calling.

I mean, right? And to address the obvious irony here, yes: Apple's secrecy about new products is legendary. And perhaps if they weren't so secretive, the caller's message could have made it up to someone who might've known what to do with it. It also would have helped if the caller's (true) story didn't sound so utterly ridiculous.

Find My iPhone (Or Not)

So why couldn't Apple track this thing down? Apple's choices at this point were a lot like any other iPhone owner's would have been:

• Call or text: Our sourced used the phone software for a very short time. He didn't check the messages or call history, but said there was no notification box indicating a text or missed call. The phone was found dead in the morning, meaning that someone could have text or called during the night.

• Find My iPhone: But what about the phone's GPS? Apple has a consumer product that lets you find lost phones, and shut them down remotely. It's called MobileMe. It works pretty well! Except, it's broken in the latest version of iPhone OS.

It's basically a given that the phone was running a test version of Apple's iPhone software, called OS 4. We've tested the software, which will presumably launch with the next version of the iPhone hardware, on current iPhone hardware. (For more on that, check here.) One thing we didn't notice, though, is that MobileMe's Find My iPhone feature, which lets you find your lost phone on an online map in a matter of seconds, doesn't work in OS 4 - yet. In other words, Apple likely couldn't track this phone because of a beta software bug.

• Shut it down: Another MobileMe feature that doesn't yet work with OS 4 is remote wipe, but the iPhone's Exchange Server integration includes its own support for remote wipe, which means that Apple would have been more than able to nuke the iPhone from afar, anyway. Evidently, that's exactly what they did.

And of course, Apple could have an entirely different tracking service, or even a different build of the OS in which Find My iPhone works fine. But assuming the phone was running something resembling the iPhone OS 4 beta many people have been using for the last few weeks, the pieces fit.

Question Zero

It's easy to piece together how this whole fiasco played out after the phone was lost, but the biggest mystery is why this phone left the Cupertino campus in the first place. The rest of the story fits with Apple's identity: regular employees weren't privy to Apple's secret products, so they dismissed them as a hoax; Apple's beta software doesn't support one of Apple's services, so they couldn't use the one feature that could have saved their asses.

The only uncharacteristic part of the whole story is that Apple had employees using top-secret hardware in the wild, amongst the masses, without so much as a simple password lock. What about Apple's storied (and absurd) internal security protocols? The leak-hunting Gestapo? Was this an unprecedented, utterly unique slip, or has everyone been giving Apple too much credit? They're good at keeping secrets, sure, they're human.

I don't expect that mistake - Apple's mistake - to even be answered for. But you can trust that it won't happen again.

The Complete Lost iPhone Saga

How Apple lost the next iPhone

All the details about the device

And finally, how Apple asked for their phone back


Comments

    You paid for stolen goods? You should have given it to the police. Disgusting...

      I don't think they should have paid either, however I'd like to point out that it isn't stolen goods. It was lost by the owners, the guy tried to give it back but didn't get anywhere. Who will Apple listen to? A technology blog.

      Also, Gizmodo might have lost the scoop if they didn't pay, the finder might have gone to someone else.

      People need to start thinking rationally and stop basing their personal ethics on legal constructs - of whose precise definition they, ironically, often seem to have only a vague idea.

      Giz didn't pay for ownership over a piece of property to which they had not right. They paid to take physical custody of it while they contact the rightful owner within what any judge would call a reasonable period of time. They didn't buy it to keep it. They paid someone money to access it for a time. They didn't "use up" any of the device or exercise any exclusive ownership rights other than opening and photographing it.

      If someone steals a car and can't be bothered returning it, and I offer to pay the thief money to take it off him and return the car to it's rightful owner within a couple of days, am I doing something wrong? I don't think so. Of course it may be a pre-release prototype and I might photograph it before I return it.. but none of the mental elements of any property offence are there.. I don't intend to deprive the rightful owner of their rights to the car.. in fact it might get to them faster than it would have, had I not paid for it.

      This whole simplistic "you paid for stolen goods therefor u is bad" attitude clearly shows that you a) base your ethics on legal categories (in theory it should be the other way around); and even worse b) you don't understand the legal categories on which you stupidly base your ethics.

      The only piece of questionable ethics is firstly in not returning it directly to Gray so the whole thing would blow over quietly for his sake. And secondly, outing him as the dumbass who lost it - that certainly unnecessarily added stress to what was already a very crappy situation for him.

    I can't help but think that the exchange of money adds to idea that SOMEONE knew they were dealing with someone else's property.

    Right now a whole bunch of people are following around apple techs looking for an opportunity to make a quick buck.

    Gizmodo, I have loved coming to this site for the latest tech news, but what you've done to get this iphone just shocked me. I did not realise that you guys wouldn't behave ethically in this situation. You've sent gray powell done the crapper.

      I agree. I feel as though I have lost integrity with the staff.

    Freddy- get a grip, or stop being a troll

    Gary- everyone knew it, this whole saga has little to do with the physical object, and everything to do with knowledge of said object.

    While gizmodo could have handled it more proffesionally all this indignation about 'stolen items', as if some poor joes personal phone was wrested from his hand, is irrational.

    Engineers being followed around?? Seeing as though their biggest secret is out I doubt it, no more than there already were.

    Reading the above, I too am a little bit worried about the ethical position of Gizmodo's actions.

    The exchange of money for the device seems to cast an unfortunate tone over the discovery and subsequent storey

    I'm sure we could argue the finer points for days but the simple fact appears to be that money was exchanged for what was described to be an unreleased produt that clearly didn't belong to the seller. Giz must have known this, otherwise why outlay a large amount of money on the device?
    It seems that any argument that Apple at any point relinquished their rightful claim on the device operates on technicalities at best. So first of all, why did the finder seek to profit from the device, and secondly why did gizmodo purchase it?

    It seems that the relentless pursuit of an exclusive storey trumped any sense of moral obligation on the part of the original finder and subsequently Gizmodo, and arguably, legal boundaries were also crossed in the sale and purchase of the device. I grant that Giz was not responsible for the finder's desire to add a price, and at least their nature as a tech blog may cause the device to *eventually* end up in it's owner's hands. However, the taint on this whole messy business remains.

    The fact is that the device should have been firstly left behind the bar, as per a more typical scenario, or secondly given back to the owner and thirdly certainly not sold, stripped and exposed before awaiting an actual legal challenge to give back (thereby confirming your inferences about the device)
    To many ethical and possibly legal boundaries were crossed in the name of this storey giz - shame on you guys.

    I’m sure competitors would have paid much more for the phone, and they wouldn’t have been after a public interest story. If I had been in such a position I may have purchased it too, for two reasons really. The first being GIZMODO writes tech stories, this is a tech story, and someone else would if they hadn’t, ethics or no. The second being I would return it should it turn out to be genuine. I have no doubt there would be others that would quite happily check that it is genuine and then sell the tech on to competitors. I’m not an apple fan by any degree, but I’d rather have them sabotaged on a product line just because someone else would like a few extra dollars on the down low.

    I don't care about the ethics of whether the goods were stolen or known to be stolen.
    Generally this story is harmless and good work by Giz.
    BUT - the public naming of the engineer was extremely poor form. Announcing that you knoew who it was would have been enough. Personally I think Mr Powell has a great case for a defamation suit.

      Gray Powell would only have a case if what was written about him was false.

    no need to cover your ass so much about this. it's a prototype device, that's it. i bet it happens more often than you think. it just happens to be an iphone and it just so happens that it got into GIZMODO hands. it could've been found by some doofus who'd've taken it home, thrown it into a draw and forgotten about it.

    it's not like it's the US nuclear launch codes or anything. (actually, people would make less of a fuss about even that happening). apple are not a secret black ops arm of the government, you'll be fine :)

    Don't you think if Gizmodo were looking to act nefariously they would have held it over Apple before printing the story? ie "We have your phone and have news stories ready to go, give us money or we run the story". Instead as soon as Apple requested the phone back, it was returned.

    High horses folks, time to get off them.

    here's my analysis: gray powell just made a mistake, he lost it. BIG DEAL! (sarcasm) but... Apple may have set up the whole thing to gain publicity or just to hype people up about the iphone 4g, then again though, it probably is an iphone prototype and a think it is alright to say, THAT IS THE iPHONE 4G! BUT... not the exterior! it was probably meant to test the inner workings of the phone - the case will change, maybe why Mr Powell had it - to test whether it worked in an urban environment. When you think about it... Gizmodo has not committed a crime - they only paid for information about the iphone 4g which could be found in this prototype. Anyone would have - ask yourselves, if you had the money - would you pay to see a real (temporarily working) iPhone 4G, I know I would!

    If I was the guy who found the phone, i would have sold it for a lot more than $5000, people would be willing to pay HEAPS for that.

    I Hope some kind sole has made gray a linkedin page, because we all know he is going to be looking for a new job real soon...

    Achievements in previous role :- lost Top Secret Prototype iPhone

    If he does manage to keep his job that will just put fuel on the fire "that it was an inside publicity plan"

    I just hope that he doesn't take the same route as the foxconn employee Sun Danyong and jumps out his apartment window.

    As far as I know, Microsoft exchange can only wipe exchange data off an iPhone.

    Has anyone actually considered that apple deliberately let this one out in the wild so that we could all give some feedback prior to a final release. Don't be surprised if the actual model that gets released is different to this one and how good is it for apple to get all this free market testing and feedback prior to release. Apple are not that dumb that they would lose such a product!

    Gizmodo, I am not impressed with your actions in regards to this matter. Getting the scoop on a new device: fine. Screwing with someones life and career by naming them: not good at all.

    This is disgusting and you should all be embarrassed and ashamed. This is a persons' life and career you are screwing with.

    Gee, I think some ppl could lighten up. Crafty and cunning but I think it's no different than someone taking photos of the iphone at the pub and selling them to a mag. Sure it may have ventured in to some gray areas - and made themselves a personal enemy of Appl - but you really can't blame them.

    As for the chump that lost it, I seriously doubt he was going to keep his job anyway. No matter where it turned up he lost apples next iPhone in a public place - FIRED!

    The publicity for Applehas certainly been priceless too. Will turn out to be the most hyped phone of all time. How can

    I think everyone on this website is being absurd to call publishing Powell's name. Apple already knew who was once in possession of the phone, so it was no risk for his job. It's no secret who owned the phone.

    With news stories, it's important for both legitimacy and balance to include the names of the people involved. Do we withhold the names of people in a car accident just because they had an accident? Even though it might tarnish their reputations, it's often an honest mistake. Just because the mistake is honest and could've happened to anyone doesn't make it any less of a mistake.

    Sorry for Powell, but it's important for credibility-- and making what happened tangible. Whatever happened to the days where we didn't baby people in news?

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