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The Case of the Top Secret iPod (tidbits.com)
183 points by macintux 10 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 28 comments



It's not a cover for a 3 letter agency, Energy IS a three letter agency.

Most people don't actually know what DOE is. For starters, it's officially one of the 17 USG intelligence agencies.

It houses the national nuclear security administration which is responsible for military reactors, nuclear weapons, and nonproliferation.

It operates the DOE Science and NNSA Weapons national lab and site complexes via M&O contracts (of which Bechtel is one of the longest contract holders).

NNSA is congressionally funded via energy and water, but it's authorization is via the armed service committee National Defense Authorization Act (same as the military).

None of this is a nefarious secret, and all of this and quite a bit more can be found via the agencies website.

Folks completely misunderstanding what government does. Forget about DOE, how many folks actually understand what HHS does, or HUD, or any of the dozens of other agencies other than Defense and State.

The USG is full of these enormous and powerful bureaucratic orgs. Not surprised that most folks (including me!) Are unaware of what our tax dollars fund, but boy is it a lesson in complex systems.


Just to add to this, the DOE (and related agencies) leads weapons inspections as part of several treaties (START, START II, nuclear test band treaty, etc.) This work often involves traveling to other countries to do inspections and verify compliance as part of the agreement.


> Most people don't actually know what DOE is.

Not even Rick Perry, the former head of the agency.

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/18/us/politics/rick-perry-en...

To be honest, he wanted to abolish it (perhaps?):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0uvmKnFY4uk


" For starters, it's officially one of the 17 USG intelligence agencies."

Are you sure?

It seems, they only have a small part of it dedicated to that.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Office_of_Intelligence_and_C...

Not big enough, to do a project like this on their own and for themself, it seems.


I suspect they worked for a different 3 letter agency and just were borrowing the letters D, O, and E.


yep, and measuring something far more interesting than radiation levels.


I can't imagine something more interesting than radiation levels. Video? Boring. Audio? Even more boring. Maybe WiFi or other radio signals? Still radiation is much more interesting then those mundane things.


I thought it was kind of dull/simplistic in the "geiger counter" sort of sense. But was imagining maybe weird radioactive isotopes or dangerous chemicals or precursor type of things. Wouldn't think RF-related things would need a spy walking around with an ipod. But who knows -- maybe something for air-gapping systems. Lord knows you and I will never know. ahahah


>Hobbyists enjoyed getting Linux to run on iPods, which was hard to do without the special knowledge and tools Apple possessed. We on the iPod engineering team were impressed. But Apple corporate didn’t like it. Starting with the iPod nano, the operating system was signed with a digital signature to block the Linux hackers (and others).

I'd like to know exactly why they were opposed to this, given that this was way before the App Store was a thing and there's nothing to protect otherwise.


They used to sell games in iTunes for iPod OS. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IPod_game


Apple likes control, that's it really.


I'm sure it was a security thing. Imagine malware that makes nefarious changes to an iPod's firmware when plugged in. Now the iPod can be used to infect other machines it gets plugged in to.


Back in 2004, this kind of thing could have just been a favour.

Now, apple collaborating to add spy devices could seriously hurt their privacy reputation. I wonder if things like this still happen, and what persuasion executives require to enable it?


This is not a "spy" device. This is device with special purpose.

And any department with multi billion budget can hire a smart peoples to do reverse-engineering on real device and build without company to know this.


But this wasn't put in every apple device... THey just made several special ones


I'd hardly call a sleeper Geiger counter a "spy device".


Could be something like this: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-16614209

Because allow a people to share information without physical contact each other.

Example - person 1 went to park, smoke a cig and transfer data to intermediate device. After 3-4 days person 2 went to park, feed ducks and get data from intermediate device. Of course this happens wireless and no physical contact.


Instead of being in the possession of a spy itself, it could be a trojan horse for spyware. You give the iPod (or several iPods) to important people around the world, and when they plug it in to a computer it executes some sort of Zero-day exploit, potentially even a backdoor embedded into iTunes developed simultaneously with this project.

Or maybe these iPods were used for multiple purposes at the same time. Anywhere where you needed a non-suspicious device to do something extra, you could get one of these custom iPods.


> My guess is that Paul and Matthew were building something like a stealth Geiger counter.

The secret project doesn't seem to be a stealth Geiger counter. The custom iPod they created had complex data recording and storing features, excessive for a Geiger counter. The device was probably made to intercept WiFi data, which makes more sense to secretly record.


Why not start with a device that already has WiFi, and then you don't need to do any hardware mods?


I suppose using a device that's known to not have WiFi would arise less suspicions


Although I believe it's common practice in secure installations to CT scan everything in and out.

No hardware mods are a much better way to not have evidence sitting in those CT scans.


Nobody is analysing the boards in those CT scans, they are checking for explosives.


Could easily be gamma or x-ray - those, if short enough wavelength, could go through the iPod case.

Talk about a cool story.


I hope these were not the iPods that IBM gave away to OSS maintainers under "Linux on Power" initiative in ~ 2002 :D


Guessing some kind of device for stealthy Van Eck Phreaking.


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