Some have wondered how the iPod, a strangely-named device with no prior market support at introduction, could so quickly have blossomed into a cultural phenomenon with such widespread brand recognition and broad-base industry support. Although there are many answers available from the traditional marketing world, most of which involve such phrases as 'disruptive technology' and 'integrated solution and design' as well as 'Jony Ive' and 'Steve Jobs' there may have been an additional factor at work quietly beneath the surface. What if there was a 'sub rosa' role for the iPod all along which in return garnered it the quiet support of regulators and negotiators?

The iPod has, since its launch, been powered by a particular piece of silicon called the PortalPlayer System-on-Chip. The model number used in the 5th generation of iPods is the PP5022, for gearheads who care. This chip handles pretty much every basic function inside the iPod - mp3 and AAC decoding, file access, FairPlay handling, control of the LCD display, etc. etc. While Apple writes the interface software that lets the user control the unit, designs the box and integrates the bits, the PortalPlayer provides the basic hardware routines to run it.

A while back, Apple introduced a clock function onto the iPod. This was the beginning of their push to move PIM functions onto the device - enticing users to move personal data onto the iPod so as to make it even more indispensable! There was just one problem, however - it didn't have a clock chip. As a result, it kept its date data inside active RAM, synchronizing when it talked to its host computer. Interestingly, some folks on the internet discovered that if you changed the date on your iPod, you could 'roll it back' past year zero - and the date changed to a five-digit number. Huh?

That got some people curious. Poking around was done. Geeks with too much time and too many tools had at it - and some extremely interesting coincidences came to light.

One thing that the PortalPlayer chip has always advertised is the ability to handle BlueTooth functionality. This has gotten many Apple fans foaming at the mouth, because the mothership has, as of yet, not announced any such functionality for the iPod. Of course, the chip's capabilities don't have anything to do with what Apple puts into the iPod, other than 'available options.' Or do they?

Several of these intrepid investigators noticed that iPods sometimes act strangely. Of course they do. They crash. They give you sad faces. They refuse to sync up. They tell you to call home. They want to be reformatted. This is to be expected. However, sometimes there are 'rashes' of this happening around the U.S. - if you datascrape the help sites, you can see patterns in the panicked posts looking for help. This might be easily explained by bugs in the code which are responsive to dates - except the lack of a clock chip makes that more difficult to fathom. It might be explained by releases which have problems - except they don't really correspond to iPod software release dates.

It wasn't until someone put some disparate facts together that this began to really click. BlueTooth is a shortwave radio technology. Years are kept in five-digit fields, but the fifth digit is typically hidden from the user unless you manually set the date to something stupid. Time-based strangeness that seemed to affect unrelated iPods around the world.

There are strange things living on shortwave. They're called numbers stations. They are widely believed to have to do with espionage, but nobody who knows for sure is talking. Still, there's a great deal of information on them available - Google is your friend. One thing that was interesting to these iPod hackers - they broadcast in waves, and they broadcast five-digit number groups. Over shortwave. Some in Morse code using audio tones, even.

It has been shown that in several instances, crashed iPods have been found to have just-broadcast numbers station groups sitting in their year fields. On reset, and software wipe, the iPods have the date sitting there all proper and nice. Why are those number groups there? We don't know. Is it deliberate? We don't know. But consider this: in a world where intrusion into your personal data is not only a mission of multiple government agencies but is also a known problem for normal people due to spam, computer viruses, malicious emails and code, and everyday life, the 'traditional' means of communicating with surveillance code on home computers (i.e. through the internet) is in constant danger of being cut off. Better firewalls, conversion to linux, changes to virus protection - even if the government manages to install devices or programs in your computer which allow it access to your data, how will it talk to them to update or control them?

Well, you wander around outside your house with your iPod. Where it can see the sky. Then you go back in and dock your iPod with your computer. There's no firewall on that connection.


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