Apple’s iPhones can do a lot, thanks to the numerous amounts of sensors built into them. Yet if a report from a former iPod engineer is to be believed, today’s iPhones can’t hold a candle to a secret iPod Apple helped make for the U.S. government. This secret iPod reportedly had a built-in Geiger counter that would allow the users to covertly gather evidence of radioactivity.
The wild report comes from former Apple software engineer David Shayer, who wrote about it at Tidbits. Shayer says that in 2005, his boss at Apple, the director of iPod software, asked him to do something rather unusual:
I was sitting at my desk, writing code for the next year’s iPod. Without knocking, the director of iPod Software—my boss’s boss—abruptly entered and closed the door behind him. He cut to the chase. “I have a special assignment for you. Your boss doesn’t know about it. You’ll help two engineers from the US Department of Energy build a special iPod. Report only to me.”
Shayer says the engineers, who he names as “Paul and Matthew,” didn’t actually work for the U.S. Department of Energy but a defense contractor working for the agency. The engineers told Shayer they “wanted to add some custom hardware to an iPod and record data from this custom hardware to the iPod’s disk in a way that couldn’t be easily detected. But it still had to look and work like a normal iPod.”
The two engineers were given an office at Apple’s headquarters and a copy of the iPod OS source code, and explained to Shayer what they wanted to do:
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.
The iPod in question was reportedly a fifth-generation “iPod with video,” which was popular with the hacking community because it could be easily modded. Shayer says their work lasted a few months, then they left Apple’s campus and he “never saw them again.”
Though Shayer says he didn’t know for sure what hardware the engineers installed in the modded iPod, Shayer says he thinks it was a Geiger counter used to detect radiation:
My guess is that Paul and Matthew were building something like a stealth Geiger counter. Something that DOE agents could use without furtively hiding it. Something that looked innocuous, that played music, and functioned exactly like a normal iPod. 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 ends his post by saying that only four people at Apple knew about the project, none of whom still work for the company today. He also says that since all communication was done in person, there was no paper trail that could prove the existence of the iPod with the built-in Geiger counter. But it if does exist, you can bet it’s the rarest iPod on the planet.