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FBI Probing Irvine Theft of Qualcomm CEO's Laptop

September 19, 2000|From Associated Press

Authorities tried Monday to determine if the suspicious disappearance of a laptop computer belonging to the chief executive officer of Qualcomm Inc. was a simple case of thievery or an act of economic espionage.

Laptops, because of their value and small size, are frequent and obvious targets for theft, but the disappearance of a computer belonging to CEO Irwin Jacobs from a hotel conference room in Irvine instantly became a top priority for local authorities, Police Lt. Sam Allevato said.

The FBI has begun an investigation at the request of Qualcomm executives, said Cheryl Mimura, a spokeswoman for the bureau's Los Angeles office.

Allevato said, "The possibilities are a random commercial theft all the way to industrial espionage . . . and anything in between."

Qualcomm declined to comment on the investigation.

The San Diego-based company is a leader in wireless technology--a boom market of the burgeoning telecommunications revolution--with $3.9 billion in sales last year. It designs and produces chips for wireless-communications devices and holds hundreds of patents whose royalties provide it with the bulk of its earnings.

Jacobs left the computer unattended on a podium or an adjoining table in the Hyatt Regency Irvine ballroom on Saturday for 15 to 20 minutes when he stepped down to talk to a small group of people after addressing about 90 members of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers.

People with access to the area included journalists and others registered at the conference, hotel staff and possibly others, said Byron Calame, SABEW's president and a deputy managing editor of the Wall Street Journal.

Jacobs told people at the conference that the IBM laptop, which he had used for a slide show-type presentation focusing on Qualcomm's wireless-telecommunications technology, contained proprietary information that could be valuable to foreign governments.

Authorities disclosed little about the investigation. Irvine police turned it over to the department's economic crime unit, which has experience with high-tech theft cases, and planned to meet with Qualcomm security officials on Tuesday, Allevato said.

The case, he added, could turn out to be simple--a thief spotting what appeared to be a quick and easy opportunity. "Theft of laptops from hotel conference rooms is not an uncommon crime," Allevato said.

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