US government built secret iPod with Apple’s help, former engineer says

 US government built secret iPod with Apple’s help, former engineer says

An Apple engineer who helped launch the iPod said he helped the United States government build a secret version of the device that would covertly collect data.

David Shayer, the second programmer hired for the iPod project in 2001, said he first learned of the project in 2005 when he received an office visit from his boss’s boss.

He moves the chase,” Shayer recounts during a post published on Monday by TidBITS, a web newsletter covering all things Apple. “‘I have a special assignment for you. Your boss doesn’t realize it. You’ll help two engineers from the US Department of Energy build a special iPod. Report only for me.

Custom hardware, custom OS

Shayer said that over the subsequent few months, he regularly helped the 2 men, who he identified only as engineers Paul and Matthew working for Bechtel (their purported redacted business cards are pictured above). there have been mundane tasks, like Shayer shuttling them from the lobby into the ultra-secure quarters where iPod development happened.

And there have been the not-so-mundane responsibilities of helping two outsiders to require Apple-provided ASCII text file and compile it into the OS that ran what was quickly becoming perhaps the world’s most iconic music playing device. Among other things, Shayer helped the lads find their way around the Windows-based developer tools Apple used at the time to create software for ARM chips.

Shayer said that Apple didn’t allow the engineers access to its ASCII text file server directly, but instead the corporate provided a replica of the ASCII text file on a DVD with the agreement it had been never to go away the building. (Apple, Shayer said, ultimately allowed the lads to retain the modified copy of the OS they created, but not the ASCII text file .)

Shayer continued:
As they learned their way around the system, they explained what they wanted to do, at least in broad strokes. They had added special hardware to the iPod, which generated data they wanted to record secretly. They were careful to make sure I never saw the hardware, and I never did.

We discussed the best way to hide the data they recorded. As a disk engineer, I suggested they make another partition on the disk to store their data. That way, even if someone plugged the modified iPod into a Mac or PC, iTunes would treat it as a normal iPod, and it would look like a normal iPod in the Mac Finder or Windows Explorer. They liked that, and a hidden partition it was.

Next, they wanted a simple way to start and stop recording. We picked the deepest preferences menu path and added an innocuous-sounding menu to the end. I helped them hook this up inside the code, which was rather non-obvious. In all other respects, the device functioned as a normal iPod.

A Geiger counter? Really?

Shayer said he never learned precisely what the modified iPod did. He knew that the engineers were combining the modified OS with some kind of hardware added to a fifth-generation iPod. the target was to make a tool that would record ambient data and write it to the device disk—all during a way that couldn’t be easily detected.

Based on the Department of Energy’s oversight of nuclear weapons and programs, he speculates that the key iPod was to incorporate a Geiger counter that would covertly scent out stolen uranium, evidence of an unclean bomb development program, or similar things.

Apple didn’t answer multiple emails sent over two days seeking comment for this post. Tony Fadell, who at the time was the senior VP of the iPod division, has taken to Twitter over the past two days to mention Shayer’s account is accurate and to supply a couple of additional details. consistent with Shayer, Fadell was one among only four people inside Apple who knew of the project. Through a representative, Fadell declined to comment. Attempts to contact Shayer were unsuccessful.

“Absolutely spot on David Shayer,” Fadell, who inside Apple circles was sometimes called “the father of the iPod,” wrote. “This project was real w/o a doubt. There was a whole surreal drama & interesting story about how this project began & then kept secret.”

While a secret iPod program sounds plausible and has the general public corroboration of two reputable people during a position to understand, there’s some understandable skepticism about the account. Chief among the doubts is that the government’s custom-made iPod would be wont to measure radioactivity as against, say, private conversations of high-value targets.

“I think it's very plausible that DOE was somehow involved during a feasibility study, e.g. ‘how big of a risk is this’ instead of ‘build this and we'll deploy it,’” Jake Williams, a former hacker for the National Security Agency, told me. “That said, this seems like something that you'd want for intelligence operations, particularly gifts to foreign dignitaries, HUMINT assets, etc.” HUMINT refers to human intelligence or the gathering of data through personal contacts.

Williams, who after leaving the NSA cofounded Rendition Security, continued: “Pre-Snowden and Vault 7 this is able to are Earth-shattering. Not such a lot now. Unfortunately, because the author notes there's very intentionally no written record .”

With no written record, details of these few months 15 years ago will likely remain a closely guarded secret. No doubt, though, that the account makes for intrigue and almost irresistible speculation. 

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