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The story of a top secret iPod made by the US government ‘right under the nose’ of Steve Jobs

The iPod is top secret

It was a gray day at the end of 2005. I was sitting at my desk, coding for the next year’s iPod. Without knocking, the director of the iPod Software – my boss’s boss – suddenly entered and closed the door behind him.

He began: “I have a special assignment for you. Your boss knows nothing about it. You will help two engineers from the US Department of Energy build a special iPod. Just report to me.”

The next day, the receptionist called to tell me that there were two men waiting in the lobby. I went downstairs to meet Paul and Matthew, the real engineers who are going to build this custom iPod. I guess they’ll be wearing dark glasses and a jacket, always glancing at the reflection in the window to make sure no one is being followed. But no, they were completely normal thirty-year-old engineers. I helped with the registration for them, then we went to a conference room to talk privately.

Entry registration for two engineers from the US Department of Energy.

As it turns out, they don’t actually work for the Department of Energy. It is a division of Bechtel, a major defense contractor with the US Department of Energy. They wanted to add some custom hardware to the iPod and burn the data from this custom hardware to the iPod’s memory in an undetectable way. But the device must still look and function like a normal iPod.

They will do all the work. My job is just to provide whatever help they need from Apple.

I learned that an official at the Department of Energy contacted Apple’s Senior Vice President of Hardware, asking for the company’s help in producing this custom iPod. The vice president then forwarded the request to the vice president of the iPod division, who handed it over to the director of iPod Software, who came to see me. My boss has only been told that I am working on a special project and must not ask questions.

Something about your personal background

I was the second software engineer hired for the iPod project when it started in 2001. Apple’s marketing department hadn’t come up with the iPod name yet, but the product was known as the P68 code name. The first software engineer then became the director of iPod Software, who gave me this special task. I wrote the iPod’s file system and then the SQLite database to keep track of all the songs. Over time, I’ve worked on almost every piece of iPod software, except for an audio codec (a device or a computer program capable of encoding and decoding a stream of data or signals) to convert MP3 and AAC files to audio.

Compiling the iPod operating system from source code, uploading it to the iPod and testing and debugging it is a rather complicated process. When a new engineer starts working, we usually give them a week to learn all of this before assigning any actual tasks.

The iPod OS is not based on another Apple operating system like Classic Mac OS or Darwin, the basic Unix core of macOS, iOS, iPadOS, watchOS, and tvOS. The iPod’s original hardware was based on a reference platform that Apple bought from a company called Portal Player. Portal Player has also provided lower levels of iPod OS, including power manager, disk driver and real-time kernel (which Portal Player was licensed from another company called Quadros). Apple bought the more premium iPod operating system from Pixo, a company founded a few years earlier by former Apple engineers who were trying to write a versatile mobile phone operating system to sell to mobile phone companies such as Nokia and Ericsson. Pixo code for UI handling, Unicode word processing, memory management, and event handling.)

The iPod operating system is written in C ++. Since it does not support third-party applications there is no external documentation on how it works.

Ultimately, the iPod team developed everything on the Windows computer. Apple doesn’t have ARM developer tools in action yet, because this is a moment before the iPhone ships. The iPod team used ARM Ltd’s ARM developer tools, which run only on Windows and Linux.

My job is to assist Paul and Matthew to set up and run everything on a new operating system they’ve never seen before.

The plan started

The story of a top secret iPod made by the US government right under the nose of Steve Jobs | Explore

I requisitioned an empty office for Paul and Matthew in the headquarters building. I asked IS&T (Apple’s IT department) to reroute the Ethernet network in that room so that they would only connect to the public Internet, outside of Apple’s firewall, to prevent them from accessing Apple’s internal network. Apple’s Wi-Fi network is always connected outside of a firewall. Even inside Apple buildings, if you’re using Wi-Fi, you’ll need a VPN to get around Apple’s firewall. This is not a partnership with Bechtel with a contract and payments; That’s something Apple is doing to help the Department of Energy. But access for that offer can only go to this limit.

Needless to say, Paul and Matthew were not allowed direct access to our source server. Instead, I gave them a copy of the current source code on a DVD and explained that the disc cannot leave the building. Eventually, they are allowed to keep modified copies of the iPod OS they have built, but not its source code.

Apple does not provide them with any hardware or software tools. I gave them the specs for the Windows machine they needed, along with the ARM compiler and the JTAG debugger. They bought the iPod retail for work, at least a few dozen, or perhaps more.

As with all Apple buildings, people must present their Apple ID card to their barcode reader to open doors and enter the building. Only the cleaning staff for our building are allowed in and out more comfortably. But on each floor, there is another locked door and a code reader, and only those who are cleaned for that floor are allowed in.

So every day, Paul and Matthew both call me from the hallway because they don’t have an Apple ID card. I log in as a guest and escort them to my own office. In the end, I managed to get the vendor’s ID, as if they were selling an Apple coffee or memory chip, so that I didn’t have to log in for everyday help. I’m a programmer, not a babysitter.

Two smart guys

Paul and Matthew were smart – even supreme – men and with a little help, they got to know and work pretty quickly. I showed them how to set up the development tools, build a copy of the operating system from source and load it onto the iPod. We’ve made some temporary changes to the UI, so we can see that their build is actually running. I showed them how to use the JTAG hardware debugger, the tool is quite complicated. Then they went into their own work.

When they learned how they were around the system, they explained what they wanted to do, at least in the main lines. They added special hardware to the iPod to create the data they want to secretly record. They are also very careful to make sure I’ve never seen the hardware, and I’ve never done it either.

We discussed the best way to hide the data they have recorded. As a hard disk engineer, I suggest they create another partition on the drive to store data. That way, even if someone plugs a modified iPod into a Mac or PC, iTunes will treat it like a normal iPod and it will look like a normal iPod in Mac Finder or Windows Explorer. They like that, and it’s a hidden partition.

Next, they wanted a simple way to start and pause recording. We picked the deepest options menu path and added a harmless-sounding menu at the end. I helped them connect this within the code, which is pretty to say clearly. In all other respects, the device acts like a normal iPod.

At that time, the newest iPod was the fifth generation iPod, also known as the “iPod with video”. Opening the case and closing it was relatively easy without leaving a clear trace, unlike the iPod nano models that became popular shortly thereafter. Plus, the fifth-generation iPod has 60 GB of memory, so there’s plenty of room to hold lots of songs and still record extra data. And it was the last iPod that Apple did not use a digital signature for the operating system.

The story of a top secret iPod made by the US government right under the nose of Steve Jobs | Explore

That’s important because it makes fifth generation iPod vulnerable to hacking. Many people have a hobby of putting Linux on an iPod, something that would be difficult to do without the special knowledge and tools that Apple owns. We in the iPod engineering team were very impressed with the actions like this. But Apple doesn’t like that. Starting with the iPod nano, this operating system was digitally signed to block hackers wanting to hack with Linux (and others). The boot ROM will check the digital signature before loading the operating system; If it does not match, the device will not boot.

I don’t think Paul and Matthew ever asked Apple about signing their custom build for the operating system to run on the iPod nano. I’m pretty sure Apple will refuse. The fifth-generation iPod is better suited for their purposes, anyway.

After several months of repeated work in the requisition office, Paul and Matthew finished integrating their custom hardware into the iPod and finished the project. They moved their computer and debugging hardware back to Bechtel’s office in Santa Barbara. They returned the latest Apple source DVD to me, along with their Apple vendor ID. They said goodbye, and I never saw them again. The DVD was on a shelf in my office for years, until I threw it away while cleaning.

What did they do?

The United States Department of Energy is enormous. Its 2005 budget was $ 24.3 billion. This unit is responsible for the US nuclear weapons and nuclear energy programs, including the Los Alamos National Laboratory, which is part of the Manhattan Project.

According to the budget requirement of this unit: “Fiscal year 2005 budget proposes $ 9.0 billion to meet defense-related goals. Budget requirement maintains commitments to nuclear deterrence requirements in the Nuclear Position Assessment. and continues to fund an active strategy to reduce the threat from weapons of mass destruction. “

The story of a top secret iPod made by the US government right under the nose of Steve Jobs | Explore

I guess Paul and Matthew are building something like a “stealth Geiger counter” (a device that helps scientists detect gamma rays, alpha particles, beta particles and other forms of radiation. ionize). Or something DOE agents can use without hiding it. Something that looks harmless, plays music and works just like a normal iPod. You can walk around the city, by chance listening to your tunes, while recording evidence of radiation – such as scans of stolen or smuggled uranium, or proof of a development program ” dirty bombs “- where the press or the public have no chance of realizing what happened. Like all electronic devices, devices like these are getting smaller and cheaper, and I enjoyed passing by a radiation-looking device that looks a lot like a classic iPod.

Whenever I asked Paul and Matthew what they were building, they changed the topic very quickly and started arguing about where to go for lunch. These are two standard agents.

Custom iPods never existed

Only four people at Apple know about this secret project. I am the director of iPod Software, vice president of the iPod division and senior vice president of hardware. None of us still work at Apple. No paper traces. All communications are direct exchange.

If you ask Apple about this custom iPod project, what you get is just: “No Comments”. The PR people will honestly tell you that Apple doesn’t have a record of any such projects.

But now you know it exists.

Refer to David Shayer’s article above Tidbits

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