The Case of the Top Secret iPod

Originally published at: The Case of the Top Secret iPod - TidBITS

15 years ago, Apple helped the US government develop a custom iPod for clandestine missions. Of course, neither Apple nor the US government will admit this ever happened. Former Apple engineer and inadvertent intelligence operative David Shayer tells the story of the iPod that never existed.

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A great article! Though I’ll bet that Apple is under very strict non disclosure agreements that would make an Apple TV+ movie or series impossible, it could even be morphed into a James Bond-ish spy story. There has been years of coverage about Apple and Netflix dukeing it out over acquiring the rights to James Bond:

And they do have some espionage titles in the works:

I don’t think the secret project would have been a dosimeter or Geiger counter. It is possible, of course. But film dosimeters are highly effective and very small. 15 years ago they were almost exclusively used for this kind of “integral dose” measurement. Additionally, the case of the iPod would block a lot of radiation. Finally, the most important thing to know is if there is radiation at all - you don’t need a complex recording system and you wouldn’t really need to keep it a secret if you are measuring it. The level of detail described here in terms of capturing data to a secret partition would really be unnecessary for radiation dose, since it’s mostly just cpm at a given time. A simple graph or even audio file could record this data, and these iPods had microphone input already as a standard feature.

I think it’s more likely the device was recording some kind of electromagnetic emissions, maybe intercepting WiFi traffic or radio traffic of some kind. There’s also a lot more situations where you would want to stealthily capture traffic or information that way. They could even have another hidden device doing the broadcasting, or just be capturing traffic for analysis later.

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That was tremendously entertaining. Crazy to say it but… simpler times.

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explained it couldn’t leave the building

I find it quite amusing that you helped spys build a tool to exfiltrate data, but expected them to follow the rule not to exfiltrate your own data :slight_smile:

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While Betchel does do a lot of work for the Department of Energy, I think possible that the custom iPod was actually for the DoD or a three letter agency such as the CIA. This would open up a lot more possibilities as to what the custom hardware was designed to do. It’s also possible that Betchel was making several different types of modified iPods, each with different capabilities. The information that was provided to them by Apple was not specific to the custom hardware, so they could have easily configured different devices with specific custom hardware for various end users. If it was actually just the DoE, the metal back of the iPod would likely make it a non-ideal candidate for a Geiger counter, especially as there where other similarly sized electronics on the market at the time which had plastic bodies. Thanks for sharing, this was an amazing story.

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Thanks, great story. Looking forward to more behind the curtain Apple stories as they’ve all been fascinating so far, like Don Melton and friends. Wonder if Phil will ever spill any beans.

Hi Dave,

Your article really takes me back to old times. I think I was at some of those poker games you talk about, with Steve Bollinger, Nitin Ganatra, Jeff Robbin, etc… I was the long haired kid who drew an inside straight flush to the ace, and then barely bet anything on the hand. Good times.

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Very interesting story, I enjoyed reading it.

Fun story, thank you. It’s also interesting to see how this has been picked up – and misunderstood – by other outlets. They’re all coming from the same source (right here) yet get different aspects of it wrong, or at least spun sideways.

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The part about no ARM compiler for Mac was funny because Apple definitely had one on Mac back when I was involved in the Newton project! It was hosted by MPW (Macintosh Programmer’s Workshop, a semi-friendly command line driven system).

So…Rubenstein, Fadell, Rogers?

I’m very familiar with MPW. I used MPW from 1.0 beta 1 through the last version. According to wikipedia the last version of MPW came out in 2001. The events in this article take place in 2005. MPW ran in classic Mac OS, but by 2005 everyone was using Mac OS X. Also, iPod used newer ARM cores than those supported by the Newton ARM compiler.

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Not Rogers.

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I loved listening to Don Melton tell Apple stories on the old Debug podcast. Worth looking up.

Perhaps work on the Stuxnet delivery vehicle began at this time.

The Debug podcast was an important document of the wider Apple ecosystem, definitely worth checking out.

Did they have you under any kind of NDA?

I found this excellent news about “The Case Of The Top Secret iPod” via Apple News. Though CNN Business characterizes the article as a “blog post,” a click on the link leads directly to the clearly marked TidBITS page.

Congratulations to David Shayer and Adam Engst. It’s always great to see good journalism, especially with a mysterious twist, recognized.

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It’s a few hours later and the story is rolling like thunder, getting lots of coverage in national and local media all over the globe. From a quick search, it looks like there are a wealth of pick ups:

And across the globe:

https://www.wionews.com/world/apple-helped-us-build-a-top-secret-ipod-claims-former-engineer-321806x

https://clicklancashire.com/2020/08/20/apple-helped-united-states-turn-ipods-into-possible-stealth.html

This is barely scratching the surface of all the coverage, and it’s just about 24/48 hours since publication. I hope it results in more TidBITS readers and Talkers.

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