Apple Once Built an iPod That Was So Secret That Even Steve Jobs Didn’t Know About It

iPod Classic with Click Wheel Credit: CC / cogdogblog / Flickr
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A new fascinating tale by a former iPod engineer tells the story of an extremely clandestine project within Apple to build a top-secret iPod for the U.S. government — a project that was so secret that supposedly Apple’s co-founder and then-CEO Steve Jobs didn’t even know about it.

The story was shared on TidBITS earlier this week by David Shayer, a software engineer within Apple’s iPod division back in 2005, and reads like a spy novel, sharing the story of how he was approached by a shadowy government contractor for a top-secret project that rivaled Apple’s own legendary cone of secrecy.

A ‘Special Assignment’

Shayer begins by explaining how the director of iPod Software (he omits the mention of any names within his narrative) — somebody at least two levels above him the chain of command — abruptly entered his office one day, telling him that he was being given a “special assignment” to help two engineers from the U.S. Department of Energy, adding that Shayer would be reporting only to him, and that none of Shayer’s co-workers or even his immediate superior were to be told anything about the project.

It turns out that the two engineers, identified only as Paul and Matthew, actually worked for a company named Bechtel, a government defense contractor to the Department of Energy.

Their mission was to add custom hardware to an iPod to undetectably record data from other hardware to the iPod’s hard disk, without giving any indication that the device wasn’t otherwise a perfectly normal iPod.

Shayer’s role in this project was simply to provide any help they needed from Apple. The two engineers themselves would be doing all of the actual work.

The project apparently began when an official at the Department of Energy contacted Apple’s Senior Vice President of Hardware — most likely Jon Rubinstein, although again Shayer doesn’t mention anybody by name — to request the company’s help in producing custom modified iPods. From there the senior VP passed the request down to the Vice President of Apple’s iPod division, likely Tony Fadell, who delegated it to the director of iPod Software, who in turn recruited Shayer.

Black Ops

According to Shayer, only those four people knew about this secret project — apparently even Steve Jobs was kept in the dark, at least as far as Shayer knew, and Shayer’s own boss was simply told that he was “working on a special project and not to ask questions.”

Although Shayer doesn’t name names, it’s almost certain that Jon Rubinstein and Tony Fadell were the two executives involved at the time, as Jon Rubinstein, who was given the nickname “Podfather,” served as Apple’s Senior Vice President of Hardware Engineering and later iPod Engineering from the time he joined Apple in 1997 until his departure in 2006, at which time he was succeeded by Tony Fadell, who at that time had been in the role of vice president of iPod engineering since 2004.

Fadell also weighed in on the story on Twitter, basically confirming that he was indeed among the four by declaring that Shayer’s comments were “absolutely spot on” and “this project was real [without] a doubt.”

According to Shayer, there was also no paper trail, and all communication was in person, and of course none of the four people involved still work at Apple.


Shayer’s story makes for an interesting read for other reasons as well, however, including offering some background on the early days of iPod development, since he was one of the very first software engineers hired to work on the then-new device, back when it was still only known by the code name P68. During his tenure as an iPod software engineer, he worked on every aspect of the iPod except for the audio codecs, which involved advanced math that was considered far beyond the understanding of mere mortal software developers.

The two engineers from Bechtel, Paul and Matthew, were given an empty office to work in with limited access to Apple’s resources, including a copy of iPod source code on a DVD that they weren’t allowed to leave the building with. After producing the modified copy of iPod OS, they were of course allowed to take that with them, but the modified source code was ultimately destroyed.

In fact, Apple didn’t even supply them with any resources, since this was a clandestine project, so logistical support like that would have left a paper trail. Instead, Shayer gave them the specs for the equipment they needed, and they supplied it themselves. The iPods they worked on were simply purchased from normal retail sources.

Apple’s culture of secrecy also meant that Paul and Matthew were allowed to work undisturbed, and nobody asked too many questions and while Shayer initially had to escort them in as guests, he eventually got them the kind of vendor badges that would be used by visitors “selling Apple coffee or memory chips” so that they could come and go on their own.

What Were They Building?

Shayer goes on to note that Paul and Matthew only ever explained what they were doing in “broad strokes,” stating simply that they had some specialized hardware that they had added to the iPod, and needed to modify the software to secretly record data from that hardware.

They were extremely careful to make sure that Shayer never saw the actual hardware components, and he notes that he never did. As a result nobody at Apple was ever sure exactly what the Bechtel engineers were building for the Department of Energy, although Shayer offers an educated guess that it was a sort of “stealth Geiger counter.”

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.

David Shayer

However, Shayer notes that whenever he asked Paul and Matthew what they were building, they simply “changed the subject and started arguing about where to go for lunch.”

At the end of the day, however, there are many other possibilities for what it could have been, considering that the Department of Energy is a massive organization that’s responsible for the U.S. nuclear weapons and nuclear power programs, and even the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the first nuclear bomb was developed during the Manhattan Project.

It’s likely we’ll never know for sure what the top-secret iPod was being designed for, nor even how many were deployed, since once the Bechtel engineers left with their finished model, they could have easily replicated the design to dozens, if not hundreds of iPods, although the project was limited to the fifth-generation iPod, and it likely wouldn’t have been possible to replicate it on later models due to the code-signing requirements Apple introduced to its iPod lineup in 2006.

Regardless, Shayer goes into a lot more details on what the whole experience was like and it’s a fascinating story that’s well worth the read.

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