When is an iPod not really an iPod? If that sounds like the opening line to some kind of riddle, well, that’s because it sort of is.
As an Apple software engineer for 18 years, David Shayer played an integral part in the development of the iPod’s code. In a Monday blog post, he recounted in detail how, back in 2005, he helped two non-Apple software engineers create a custom iPod operating system that would allow a functioning 5th generation iPod to operate mysterious hardware hidden inside.
Shayer says that not only did he not know what exactly he was working on, but that only a few people at the company had any idea about the project at all. Even his boss, Shayer claims, was kept out of the loop.
“I have a special assignment for you,” Shayer writes that his boss’s boss told him at the time. “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.”
Except, as Shayer recalls, the two engineers didn’t actually work for the DoE. Instead, they worked for the defense contractor Bechtel. They wanted a special iPod, an iPod that would secretly record and store unspecified data, and it was Shayer’s job to help them make that possible.
Now, it should be noted that we are unable to verify Shayer’s claims. We reached out to Apple in an attempt to do just that, but received no immediate response. Shayer himself writes that anyone attempting to verify his story with Apple should expect the same results.
“Only four people at Apple knew about this secret project,” he writes. “None of us still work at Apple. There was no paper trail.”
So, what was the purpose of this secret iPod? While Shayer can’t say for sure, he does have a guess. He thinks the defense contractor was building a clandestine Geiger counter.
“You could walk around a city,” postulates Shayer, “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.”
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Maybe that is what the defense contractors were up to. And maybe not. Either way, it should give you something to think about the next time you see someone casually strolling down your block, 15-year-old iPod in hand.