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Tech Time Warp: First computer storage warrant issued

Tech Time Warp: First computer storage warrant issued

Nowadays, everyone knows the first things sought with a search warrant will be laptops and smartphones. The digital trails we all leave are revealing whether one is involved in something illegal or simply has a potentially embarrassing health condition. But there had to be a first digital search warrant, and that was issued 53 years ago in California by a Santa Clara County court.

The warrant was issued Feb. 19, 1971, in response to an affidavit from the Oakland police department that said there was reason to believe a “data storage device” contained stolen trade secrets. In the course of operating a UNIVAC systems 1108 computer, an employee of Information Systems Design, then based in Palo Alto, found punch cards attached to the computer. These paper cards (aka “Hollerith cards” or “IBM cards”) were the precursor to floppy disks and contained a series of holes representing information. The holes on the cards in question operated the company’s proprietary remote plotting program, estimated to be worth $15,000 in 1971, or more than $112,000 in today’s dollars. The cards also contained a security access code belonging to a former employee.

The search warrant asked for any more punch cards, printouts relating to the program, and a computer memory bank and other storage items. As the warrant was carried out, police seized a Fastrand magnetic drum mass storage system designed for use on UNIVAC and a paper directory of the files on the Fastrand.

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Photo: Billion Photos / Shutterstock

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