FORMED BY GOOD INTENTIONS, Silicon Valley's high-tech law enforcement task force has been getting a lot of stick over the way that it acted as Apple's secret police,
Last month the Rapid Enforcement Allied Computer Team (REACT) broke into the Fremont home of a blogger-editor for the website Gizmodo looking for evidence about a secret, next-generation Iphone prototype that had been left in a Redwood City bar by an Apple engineer.
It turns out that one of the missions of the Silicon Valley task force, spelled out in state statutes, is to protect company secrets, something that effectively gives the tech industry its own police force.
The team's website guest book, which until then had featured a handful of thank-you notes, has suddenly got very busy as it exploded with 90 messages, most of them very hostile.
"How's it feel to be Apple's secret police?" a critic wrote.
"You violated not only the 4th Amendment, but also the 1st Amendment rights of a journalist," said another.
The only defender of the unit on the page said that people should not insult them for "doing their job". Of course you could say the same thing about the good people of the Gestapo.
No charges have been filed in the Gizmodo case, and the investigation is on hold while the San Mateo District Attorney's Office reviews the claim of journalistic protection under federal and state shield laws.
According to the San Jose Mercury Times REACT is one of five regional interagency task forces formed in 1997 by the Legislature in response to a growing number of high-tech thefts and other complex tech crimes such as hacking and identity theft.
That makes sense until you realise that the cash strapped state allocates roughly $12 million to $13 million a year to the task forces from the vehicle license tax and in this case they were actually being used at the request of Apple to put the frighteners on a journalist who was running a story that had not been approved by the company press office. The phone had not been stolen and had already been returned to Apple.
REACT has had better days. It cracked a major Lexisnexis hacking case in 2005. It has helped break up several identity theft rings. It assisted in nabbing someone burglarising Yahoo's and other corporate campuses last year.
The law provides for each task force to be directed by a local steering committee composed of representatives of participating agencies and members of the local high-tech industry. Critics have said this affords Apple, which is on the local steering committee, more law enforcement protection than the average citizen.
Tom Nolan, who is representing Jason Chen, the Gizmodo editor whose home was searched, said he was very concerned that REACT was becoming a tool of large corporations. µ
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