Law questioned after technology writer is arrested over 4G handset 'find'

Police have raided the home of a blogger who revealed details of Apple's fourth generation iPhone ahead of its unveiling by the computer giant's chief executive, Steve Jobs, this summer.

Officers from California's Rapid Enforcement Allied Computer Team smashed down Jason Chen's door on Friday night and seized computers, servers, cameras, phones and a credit card. His car was also searched outside his home in Fremont, California, when he arrived to find forensic teams at work inside.

It emerged yesterday that anti-computer crime detectives in Silicon Valley are investigating whether Mr Chen was guilty of committing a felony after he came into possession of the prototype which was said to have been left on a bar stool at Redwood City, California, near Apple's campus headquarters in Cupertino, by one of the company's software engineers.

The leading tech site Gizmodo, which published the details and for which Mr Chen is an editor and blogger, is understood to have paid $5,000 (£3,270) to an intermediary for the device, before publishing a story about the device online, gaining itself one of the web's biggest scoops of the year and attracting millions of hits.

But now the story is focusing on whether the warrant, issued by a Superior Court judge in San Mateo County last week, contradicts California's laws, which protect journalists from having to reveal their sources or disclose unpublished materials to the authorities. Gawker Media, which owns New York-based Gizmodo, has written to the police, questioning whether they have breached the so-called "shield laws" and demanding that seized possessions be returned.

Nick Denton, the former Financial Times journalist who is Gawker's chief executive, said the case could prove to be a test to see if online writers were covered by the same safety net as their print and broadcast colleagues. "Are bloggers journalists? I guess we'll find out," he said in an email.

Apple, which is riding high after the successful launch of the iPad, has remained tight-lipped. California law prohibits a person using someone else's property without permission. San Mateo County district attorney Stephen Wagstaffe suggested that this meant there could be a case of "misappropriation of lost property", adding: "It's a crime but it's not theft."

After Mr Chen revealed details of the new design, complete with photographs and a video, a senior legal executive at the technology giant wrote to the website, asking for it back. The phone was mislaid by a 27-year-old employee who was out celebrating his birthday. It was identified as something unusual by another drinker at the bar. The finder allegedly tried to contact Apple through its customer telephone line but was not believed.

Some bloggers have already pondered whether the police action reflects Mr Jobs's support for "old media" companies, such as newspapers and TV, rather than the burgeoning blogosphere. Alex Moore, blogging on the Death + Taxes website, said: "More interesting is the philosophical question this raises about Apple's relationship to technology: does Steve Jobs hate blogs?"