An Apple engineer who helped launch the iPod said he helped the US government build a secret version of the device that could be used to covertly collect data.
David Shayer, the second software engineer hired for the iPod project in 2001, said he first learned about the project in 2005 when he received an office visit from his boss's boss.
"It got to the point," Shayer said in a post published Monday by TidBITS, an online newsletter that covers everything related to Apple. I have a special assignment for you. Your boss doesn't know about it. You're helping two engineers from the US Department of Energy build a special iPod. Just get in touch with me. "
Custom hardware, custom operating system
Shayer said that over the next several months he regularly helped the two men he identified only as engineers Paul and Matthew who worked for Bechtel (their supposedly edited business cards are pictured above). There were mundane chores, like Shayer taking her from the lobby to the ultra-secure areas where iPod development took place.
And there was the not quite everyday responsibility of helping two outsiders to take over the source code provided by Apple and to compile it into the operating system on which the fastest music player in the world was located. Among other things, Shayer helped the men find their way around the Windows-based developer tools that Apple used to develop software for ARM chips at the time.
Shayer said Apple didn't give engineers direct access to its source code server, but rather the company provided a copy of the source code on a DVD with an agreement never to leave the building. (Apple, Shayer says, ultimately allowed the men to keep the modified copy of the operating system they created, but not the source code.)
When they found their way around the system, they explained what they wanted to do, at least broadly. They had added special hardware to the iPod that created data that they secretly wanted to record. They made sure I never saw the hardware, and I never did.
We've discussed the best way to hide the recorded data. As a hard drive engineer, I suggested creating another partition on the hard drive to store your data. That way, even if someone connects the modified iPod to a Mac or PC, iTunes treats it like a regular iPod and looks like a regular iPod in the Mac Finder or Windows Explorer. They liked that and it was a hidden partition.
Next, they wanted an easy way to start and stop recording. We chose the menu path with the deepest settings and added a harmless sounding menu at the end. I helped them get this into the code which was pretty obvious. Otherwise, the device worked like a normal iPod.
A Geiger counter? "Really?"
Shayer said he never knew exactly what the modified iPod was doing. He knew the engineers were combining the modified operating system with hardware added to a fifth generation iPod. The goal was to create a device that could record environmental data and write it to the device disk – all in a way that is not easy to see.
Based on the Department of Energy's oversight of nuclear weapons and programs, he speculates that the secret iPod should contain a Geiger counter that could covertly track down stolen uranium, evidence of a dirty bomb development program, or the like.
Apple did not respond to multiple emails sent over two days to receive a comment for this post. Tony Fadell, who was senior vice president of the iPod division at the time, has reached out to Twitter for the past two days to say Shayer's account is correct and to provide some additional details. According to Shayer, Fadell was one of only four people within Apple who knew about the project. Through a representative, Fadell declined to comment. Attempts to contact Shayer were unsuccessful.
"Absolutely right for David Shayer," wrote Fadell, who was sometimes referred to as the "father of the iPod" in Apple circles. “This project was real without a doubt. There was a whole surreal drama and an interesting story about how this project was started and then kept a secret. "
You should have seen the guys behind those 2 engineers … What a trip! I am still friends with one of them today. Crazy super cool technology that the government was working on back then … I can only imagine what's cooking these days. https://t.co/ysZgmq1ldm
– Tony Fadell (@tfadell) August 18, 2020
There were a lot of people on the iPod team who had no idea what and why these two engineers were doing in our offices. If you don't get the full picture, people are sure to have doubts. These secrets will stay safe … https://t.co/hzbId2pfxs
– Tony Fadell (@tfadell) August 19, 2020
While a secret iPod program sounds plausible and has public endorsement from two reputable people who may know, there is understandable skepticism about the account. The biggest doubt is that the government's custom iPod is being used to measure radioactivity, as opposed to, say, private conversations about high value targets.
“I think it's perfectly plausible that DOE was somehow involved in a feasibility study, e.g. "What's the risk," rather than "building this up and we'll use it," said Jake Williams, a former National Security Agency hacker. "That said, this sounds like something you would want for intelligence operations, especially gifts to foreign dignitaries, HUMINT assets, etc." HUMINT refers to human intelligence or the gathering of information through personal contact.
Williams, who co-founded Rendition Security after leaving the NSA, continued, “Before Snowden and Vault 7, this would have been earth shaking. Not so much now. Unfortunately, as the author notes, there is intentionally no trace of paper. "
Without a paper trail, details of those few months 15 years ago will likely remain a closely guarded secret. There is no doubt that the report creates intrigue and almost irresistible speculation.