March 11, 2013 1:45:12 PM
In 1971, I read a fascinating article in Esquire, "Secrets of the Little Blue Box," which described how "phone phreaks" were using their knowledge of electronics and their ability to whistle tones into phones to investigate the vast workings of the telephone company. Fool that I was, I went on to read something else, instead of joining in the conspiracy. Steve Wozniak read the same article, called up his pal Steve Jobs, started making digital tone-producing machines called "blue boxes," and then Apple was born. It wasn't that direct, of course, but in a foreword to Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws Who Hacked Ma Bell (Grove Press), Wozniak writes that Jobs "... once said that Apple would not have existed without the blue box, and I agree." The author of this funny and entertaining book is Phil Lapsley, whose previous book was a co-authored textbook about digital signal processors and who is a consultant on computer and telephone security issues. Don't worry; Lapsley does cover the technical matters here, but he does a remarkable job profiling the talented geeks of forty years ago (Wozniak and Jobs play only minor roles, and Bill Gates makes a cameo appearance). He gives the story intimations of importance even though everyone has gotten older, the phone system has changed inalterably, and hackers are busy on other systems.
Lapsley includes a capsule history of the phone company itself, which had been founded in 1877 and had by the time of the phreaks grown into AT&T, with more assets and employees than any other company in the world. Around 1940, Bell Labs engineers installed a new way for their switching machines to communicate by tones to facilitate long distance connections. Twenty years later, the hardware of the whole long distance system was founded on these tones. The engineers could not have foreseen that this was a flaw that could be exploited, or that there would be geeks interested in the fun of doing so. In the 1950's a few young men were using technical knowledge and bluff to fool operators into making connections for them; one of them modified his "Davy Crockett Cat and Canary Bird Call Flute" to generate tones for free long distance calls. It was only in 1960 that eighteen-year-old Ralph Barclay read the unclassified technical journals of the Bell System in his library, assembled the first homemade electronic tone generator (which he housed, by chance, in a metal box colored blue), and used it to make free long distance calls. His friends in his dorm appreciated his letting them call home for free, but mostly he just wanted to see what he could do.
That curiosity fired others as well. There are quite a few blind people among the phreaks here, including a teenager named Joe Engressia who didn't need an electronic box because he was capable of whistling the precise tones. Engressia didn't need any help from the cereal Cap'n Crunch, but other phreaks got assistance from that unexpected source when the good Captain obligingly included a whistle as a toy in his cereal box, a whistle that produced just the right tone used for long distance switching. The discovery that the whistle could be used that way was not the accomplishment of the phreak John Draper, who was most heavily profiled in the Esquire article. However, he adopted the name Captain Crunch; there were other handles used by the phreaks, like Wozniak's Berkeley Blue or Jobs's Oaf Tobar. (A separate issue is the pseudonyms Lapsley has had to use in writing this book. He has talked to plenty of the former phreaks, and has assured them that the pranks and thefts described in the book happened decades ago, the statute of limitations has run out, no cops or phone security people are on their trails, and so on, but many still want to remain anonymous. This produces the oddity in the text, wherein an investigator "learned 'Norden's' real name: Paul Sheridan*." The helpful note at the bottom of the page: "* A pseudonym.").
The phreaks were generally working in isolation, although they got a charge out of showing other phreaks what they could accomplish. They found each other out by word of mouth and by classified ads that non-phreaks would not have understood, and by conference calls. Conference calls in those days had to be arranged by an operator, and were expensive, but not for those who knew the right tones. In such conference calls, they would not talk so much about how much money they saved, which was seldom a goal. Instead, one might explain how he got a call routed from Portland to New York to Little Rock and then to a nearby pay phone. One might brag about how he could listen in on other telephone users, including the FBI or the phone system's administrators. Captain Crunch found an unlisted number for the White House, and having listened in and learned that the president's code name was "Olympus," phoned and asked for Olympus by name; there can't be any confirmation, but someone who sounded "remarkably like Nixon" picked up. Captain Crunch thereupon reported an emergency lack of toilet paper in Los Angeles, and hung up. Wozniak once called the Vatican and impersonated Henry Kissinger's voice, asking to talk to the pope. It almost worked. One time, phreaks arranged that everyone who called into Santa Barbara long distance got an apologetic message: "There has been a nuclear explosion in Santa Barbara and all the telephone lines are out."
The pranks are fun to read about, but they caused understandable consternation within the phone company. The phreaks never made enough free long distance calls to cause a real dent in long distance revenue. However, blue boxes eventually got into the hands of bookies, who make their livings not only taking and placing bets but checking out casinos and football stadiums all across the country. The blue boxes meant not only free calls but secret, unmonitored ones as well. The famous Yippie Abbie Hoffman advocated that his followers deliberately rip off AT&T as a protest against The Establishment. Inevitably, enforcers went into action. Jobs and Wozniak were not busted (it is an exciting segment of the book to see how close they came), but others were, and wound up with prison sentences or fines. When Captain Crunch was busted, at least one phreak reasoned that "It was no longer fun, and not really a game worth playing anymore." Then, too, the technology of the phone system finally changed and the tones don't work as they used to. The "where are they now" pages at the end of the book reveal that the phreaks profiled here mostly "went on to live happy, productive, and fairly conventional lives," perhaps even working for the phone company.
It is clear from the amusement with which Lapsley writes about the phreaks that he is on their side, even though he is a security consultant. In his epilogue, he muses about what the phreaks accomplished. "The phone phreaks compelled us to deal with a new class of phone criminal: the curious." They were more interested in learning about the phone system than in using their learning to make money. "At some level, we as a society understand that there is a benefit to having curious people, people who continually push the limits, who try new things. But we'd prefer they not go too far; that makes us uncomfortable." The rollicking story of how phreaks took over what is now an ancient technology makes for delightful, sometimes exciting reading. Hackers nowadays, annoying companies by taking down or altering their web pages, or finding new viruses or Trojans with which to afflict us, or helping get out a new round of spam, may be the phreaks' descendants, but they are nowhere near so amiable, and no one is going to write about them a history like this one.