Back in 2005, before the iPhone, Apple purportedly helped a U.S. Department of Energy contractor modify a 5th-generation iPod to secretly record and store data. The exact reason why remains a mystery, but an ex-Apple engineer involved in the project thinks it could have been a surreptitious Geiger counter.
This bonkers story comes courtesy of David Shayer, a former Apple software engineer who was with the company for 18 years and worked on devices such as the iPod and Apple Watch. Shayer, who wrote the story for TidBITS, recounts a “gray day in late 2005” when his boss’s boss, the director of iPod software, told him that he was assigned to a top-secret project with two engineers from the U.S. Department of Energy to build a “special iPod.”
In actuality, the two engineers were from Bechtel, a U.S. defense contractor for the DOE. The request was to build a normal, functioning iPod that could also secretly record data onto custom hardware. In other words, some spy-level shit. At the time, the iPod wasn’t a particularly easy device to modify. That’s because according to Shayer, the iPod’s operating system wasn’t based on any other Apple operating system. Instead, it was based on a “reference platform Apple bought from a company called Portal Player” and cobbled together with code from Pixo, a company started by former Apple engineers who wrote a “general-purpose cell phone operating system.” TL;DR—the iPod OS was complicated, and there wasn’t an easy way to figure out how it worked without help from Apple.
Throughout Shayer’s tale, it’s apparent that secrecy was paramount. Shayer basically shepherded the two Bechtel engineers—Paul and Matthew—through the process but said Apple didn’t provide any hardware or software. Likewise, while Shayer gave them the tools they needed to figure out how to build the device, he says he never saw the custom hardware Paul and Matthew added to their modified iPod. When it came time to figure out how to hide the recorded data, Shayer suggested they create a hidden partition so that if anyone plugged the secret iPod into a computer, “iTunes would treat it as a normal iPod and it would look like normal iPod in the Mac Finder or Windows Explorer.”
At Apple, Shayer says, no record was kept of the project, and only four people, including Shayer, knew about it at all. (None of the four still works at Apple.) As for what the device was used for... no one actually knows. Shayer believes it was likely a type of Geiger counter DOE agents could use to surreptitiously record radioactivity levels while appearing to listen to music.
It’s not terribly surprising that the U.S. government might approach a major tech company for help with this kind of thing. There are reasons why executives at these companies often have a government security clearance—and Steve Jobs was no exception. While it’s not clear why Jobs was given top security clearance, Wired notes that it may have had something to do with his work at Pixar, which was contracted by intelligence agencies for rendering reconnaissance flight and satellite information using its Pixar Image Computer.
While we may never know what that custom iPod was used for, thanks to Shayer’s story—which is honestly a great read—we do know it existed. If that’s not fodder for Apple conspiracy theories, I don’t know what is.