Apple helped US government turn iPods into possible stealth Geiger counters


Bye-pod: Apple boots app that turns iPhone into an iPod Classic
It's like a mashup of Apple and James Bond.
Photo: QC Dads/Twitter

Apple teamed up with the U.S. government to build a modified iPod that might have been a stealth Geiger counter for detecting and measuring ionizing radiation, claims former Apple software engineer David Shayer.

In an article for TidBits, Shayer — who left Apple in 2015 — described the secret project as a “special assignment” only known to about four people at Apple. It was his job to assist two engineers working for a U.S. defense contractor to the Department of Energy.

Shayer writes:

“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.

They’d do all the work. My job was to provide any help they needed from Apple.

I learned that an official at the Department of Energy had contacted Apple’s senior vice president of Hardware, requesting the company’s help in making custom modified iPods. The senior VP passed the request down to the vice president of the iPod Division, who delegated it to the director of iPod Software, who came to see me. My boss was told I was working on a special project and not to ask questions.”

The article is pretty fascinating, and well worth a read. Shayer said Apple did not provide any hardware or software. The iPods used were fifth-gen models, bought from retail stores and then modified.

Geiger counter iPods?

He continued that:

“As [the government-sponsored engineers] learned their way around the system, they explained what they wanted to do, at least in broad strokes. 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.”

Shayer is not sure what these secret iPods were used for. However, the Department of Energy is responsible for the U.S. nuclear weapons and power programs. “My guess is that Paul and Matthew were building something like a stealth Geiger counter,” he wrote.

“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.”

Any former Apple engineers reading this who were involved in similar projects? Let us know in the comments below.