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The first time police snooped inside digital storage


A former employee of a California-based company was suspected of stealing a proprietary program worth $15,000. What makes the case interesting is using a data storage device to commit the crime.

On February 19, 1971, the first warrant to search a computer was issued through Santa Clara County court.

An Oakland Police Department Sergeant affidavit said there was reason to believe that evidence related to the theft of trade secrets was contained on a data storage device.

According to the head of Information Systems Design, a company that was based in Palo Alto at the time, a former employee was suspected of stealing software worth $15,000.

The proprietary program would be worth over $100,000 in today‘s money.

The affidavit mentions that the software in question gave the computer “the capability of producing remote plotting,” a feature that the company considered a trade secret.

Fastrand-digital-storage
The Fastrand drum mass storage machine.

In line with the technology of the times, the crime was discovered when a technician operating UNIVAC systems 1108 computer (pictured in the featured image) found a set of punch cards connected to the device.

“Examination of the key punch cards shows that the computer was implemented by use of an access code to that particular program, which code was regarded […] as confidential, and was not released […] except by persons authorized,” the 1971 affidavit reads.

A technician advised the authorities that the stolen software can be stored in a punch card form, print-out form, or “as a program in a computer which consists of a series of accessible electrical and/or magnetic impulses.”

The affidavit also advised conducting the searches overnight, fearing the perpetrator could swiftly destroy the magnetic storage if alerted.

The case files indicate that officers confiscated a trove of magnetic tapes and a directory of all files on Fastrand, a magnetic drum mass storage system.

The warrant and the case were so new to the legal system that seven years later, both were included in an “Operational guide to white-collar crime enforcement” as examples of how law enforcement should investigate felony cases related to digital storage.


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