Apple made a secret iPod for the US government, ex-software engineer claims

The aim was to make an iPod that could run custom software, which the engineer speculates was a Geiger counter

Adam Smith
Tuesday 18 August 2020 12:54 BST

A former Apple software engineer who worked on the iPod claims that the smartphone giant made a “top secret” music player for the US government.

David Shayer, who worked for the company for 18 years, wrote that in 2005 the director of iPod Software told him of a “special assignment” with “two engineers from the US Department of Energy [to] build a special iPod.”

The two engineers were from Bechtel, a US defense contractor which worked with the Department of Energy. Their aim was to build an iPod that would be able to run custom hardware in a way that could not be detected.

According to Shayer, only four people in Apple knew of this projects’ existence: Shayer himself, the director of iPod Software, the vice president of the iPod Division, and the senior vice president of Hardware.

All communication was apparently done in person, in order to avoid a paper trail.

While Shayer claims he does not know what the engineers were building, he suspects that it was “something like a stealth Geiger counter”.

“You could walk around a city, casually listening to your tunes, while recording evidence of radioactivity—scanning for smuggled or stolen uranium, for instance, or evidence of a dirty bomb development program—with no chance that the press or public would get wind of what was happening”, Shayer wrote.

“This wasn’t a collaboration with Bechtel with a contract and payment; it was Apple doing a favour under the table for the Department of Energy,” he also recalls.

While Bechtel were not given Apple’s source code for the iPod, they reportedly built a copy of the iPod operating system from that code and loaded it onto a music player.

The engineers built a hidden partition on the disk – a region of iPod storage that could be managed separately from its main use.

Using that trick, an unsuspecting person could plug the iPod into a computer and it would not be recognised as a modified device.

They also built a way to start and stop recording, adding the function secretly in a menu screen in the iPod’s preferences.

The iPod in question was a fifth-generation iPod, which added video functions to Apple’s music player. It was, Shayer points out, the last iPod where Apple did not digitally sign the operating system, which made the device hackable.

From the first iPod Nano, Apple changed its practises – stopping the iPod being hacked by enthusiasts.

Shayer believes that if Apple had been asked to run similar software on the Nano, rather than the fifth-generation iPod, the company would have refused.

“If you asked Apple about the custom iPod project … the PR people would tell you honestly that Apple has no record of any such project”, Shayer concludes. The Independent has reached out to Apple and Bechtel for comment.

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