One year ago, a team of FBI agents executed a warrant to search former Donald Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort’s storage unit.
Now serving a prison sentence in Pennsylvania for fraud, tax evasion, and conspiracy, Manafort had by then been under a years-long criminal investigation. When the agents got inside the storage unit, they found a pile of seven iPod Touch devices. Why would a man known for his international dealings as a lobbyist for global dictators be stockpiling iPods?
Today Apple announced the launch of the next generation iPod Touch starting at $199. There’s always something strange, almost funny whenever Apple launches a new iPod because this was a milestone tech product that changed the industry forever — about 18 years ago. It’s not exactly a world-changing device in the usual ways: The processor is old news, the operating system is Apple’s usual iOS, the hardware is equivalent to an iPhone 7.
What good is this thing now over a decade into the age of iPhones and Androids?
Judging by the public reaction to Apple’s announcement, most people don’t see much appeal. It’s marketed to parents with young kids who maybe shouldn’t have their own cell phone plans. Beyond that, there won’t be a point to these devices for a lot of people. But there are some significant exceptions.
The iPod Touch is an exceptionally strong device when it comes to security and privacy. The new iPod comes with an A10 chip, the iPhone 7’s processor, once again presumably including Apple’s Secure Enclave tech to handle especially sensitive information. We’ve reached out to Apple for confirmation.
The hardware and software are on par, in most ways, with any iPhone—one of the most secure pieces of tech a consumer can buy today. It’s what the iPod Touch doesn’t have that sets it apart.
The iPod Touch doesn’t have cell service. That’s a pain in the ass for most people and, at the same time, it’s a potential real advantage for individuals who need to put a lot of stock into their privacy. Human rights activists, lawyers, politicians, spies or journalists can potentially take advantage of what the iPod Touch lacks — or, maybe, a dictator’s best friend like Manafort. Vice’s Joseph Cox is one prominent proponent of the iPod Touch-for-privacy strategy.
Any phone in your pocket constantly calls out to cell towers in search of service.
Hijacking cell phone numbers is a well-known and powerful tactic. Vulnerabilities in the SS7 protocol used by global telecoms have proven open to exploitation from tools that private hacking companies like NSO Group sell to governments around the world. Cox’s own reporting has shown that you can’t trust your cell phone carriers: Phone companies keep and sell location data to the highest bidders including bounty hunters — an ongoing issue, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Using an iPod Touch with encrypted messengers like Signal (using a telephone number generated freely by a service like Google Voice for Americans) can turn the cheapest iOS-capable device out there into a secure messaging machine that sheds some of the most potent attack surface inherent to smartphones today.
Starting at $199, the iPod Touch makes a solid “burner” device. The reasons for needing a burner can vary from person to person. For traveling journalists, for instance, passing through borders and into foreign countries means their privacy is at risk. Border areas around the world, including in the United States, are notorious for intrusive device searches thanks to policies allowing unlimited suspicionless and indiscriminate device searches. Being in a new country also means a high-risk individual like a journalist may be more easily targeted for surveillance. In that situation, a separate but powerful device that’s trickier to track and that is free from all the data on your personal smartphone can be a useful tool.
We don’t know exactly what was on Paul Manafort’s iPod Touch collection. We do know that prosecutors and Manafort’s own defense team paid the devices extra attention. At one point, Manafort’s lawyers laughably claimed iPod Touches could only be used to play music. In fact, it’s a cheap, fully capable iOS device cut free from nosy telecoms.
The iPod Touch as your secure device is not for everyone. But for the right person, it could be what protects them when they need it most.