Exploding the Phone

Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws who Hacked Ma Bell
© Phil Lapsley 2013
416 pages

WANTED HARVARD MIT Fine Arts no. 13 notebook. (121 pages) & 40 page reply K.K. & C.R. plus 2,800; battery; m.f. El presidente no esta aqui asora, que lastima. B. David Box 11595 St. Louis, MO 63105.
[…]
Locke sat back. Someone had put a cryptic ad in the newspaper. He’d responded. They sent him a letter. In mirror writing. In Russian. In 1967. During the cold war.
Spy ring.
It just didn’t get much cooler than this.

Book preview, available on WIRED.com, and on Kindle.

Exploding the Phone opens with a cryptic ad in a campus newspaper, one that swells with intrigue as a bored college student responds to the ad and receives an ominous message in return, penned in code.   The code only heightens both the student and the readers’ interest, and lures him and us into  the exciting world of….playing with the telephone.  Who knew the dial tone had mysteries to uncover, let alone ones that would lead to FBI investigations and multi-million dollar infrastructure shakeups?  Well, not me!  Easily the most memorable revelation of reading CYBERPUNKS last year was that once upon a time,  teenagers and tech heads were utterly fascinated by the telephone network, and poured hours of their time into exploring its innards and fabricating devices to manipulate it from payphones. Katie Hafner’s work on the ‘outlaws’ of the electronic frontier quickly saw these phone phreaks move to computers, but Exploding the Phones is a fuller history of the phone-hacking heyday, the sixties and early seventies.

Before transistors were commonly used in AT&T’s network,  the components of it — the phones switchboards, etc — communicated to one another using a language of tones. This language was independently deciphered by teenagers and young people across the United States, many of them blind.  People found they could manipulate the system by whistling at the right pitch (2600 hz), or using toy whistles and recording tones. Some groups found each another, most notably a group of Harvard students who created a ‘blue box’ to navigate through the phone system. While this phone manipulation could allow people to make free phone calls, the early ‘phone phreaks’ had no one  to call.  The phone system was a world to explore, and those who mastered it could take pride in the doing of it.  Experienced phone freaks — later known as phone “phreaks” after Esquire magazine discovered them —  often knew more about what the telephone system was capable of than the engineers themselves, as one named “Captain Crunch” demonstrated when he used an auditing system on one side of the country’s network to listen in on FBI lines on the other side of the country.  (Helpful hint: if you’re being investigated by the FBI, you really shouldn’t tap their phones. They respond poorly to that.)

Although the phreaks’ accomplishments were largely built on their own intelligence, passion, and time sunk into exploration and tinkering, they were aided considerably by AT&T.  “Ma Bell” then owned a legal monopoly on all telecommunications within the United States, and because of its frequent interactions with the government, it developed extensive documentation for every part of its system. It even issued instructions for sweeping the floors! Its technical manuals often found their way into the hands of phreaks —  some of whom dug in dumpsters to find them.  Other technical volumes found their way into university libraries, which is why many of the early phreakers were college students.  Before AT&T realized people were manipulating their system and began policing it more closely, bored AT&T operators and technicians often volunteered information to the ‘kids’ who were interested. Using tech journals and information gained from workers,  phreakers were often able to pretend to be technicians troubleshooting the network, and relied on internal operators to help them navigate through.

Not everyone was interested in simply exploring the network, however.  Some saw a  buck to be made in fabricating and selling  equipment that allowed technologically-uninterested people to cheat the phone company, and others — like Abbie Hoffman — saw a revolution.  To some in the 1960s anticulture,  IBM, AT&T, and DC were all  different heads on the same beast. Cheating AT&T’s  long distance charges would deprive DC of tax income, which would, like, end the war in Vietnam, man.   The early phreakers disliked the idea of making money off it, but as network manipulation became more broadly known,  whatever control they had of the knowledge escaped. Hollywood celebrities were being charged with phone toll fraud on a regular basis, and AT&T was doing its utmost to end the party. Not only did it ratchet up the number of people it prosecuted for fraud, but once transistors arrived, AT&T was able to start building a more secure infrastructure.  Around the time same, computers arrived on the scene,  and the same minds and personalities that were capable of tinkering and obsessing with the phone network were attracted to  this new world.   (The greatest example of this would be Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, both of whom made money selling blue boxes and who later became leading forces in the microcomputer revolution.  Kevin Mitnick and Susan “Thunder” were another two phone phreakers turned computer hackers, detailed in CYBERPUNKS.)

Exploding the Phones was a great read for me, building on that spark of wonder — teens used to hack TELEPHONES? —  and putting it together with a lot of business, social, and legal history as the phreaking culture developed in full, and both the FBI and AT&T worked to respond to it. The author sometimes slips into a chatty, personal voice, but nothing about the book seems sloppy — it is in fact extensively documented.  I was captivated, not only by this tour of an America in transition, but of the odd personalities who explored it first.

Related
Cyberpunks

About smellincoffee

Citizen, librarian, reader with a boundless wonder for the world and a curiosity about all the beings inside it.
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8 Responses to Exploding the Phone

  1. Mudpuddle says:

    great post! i remember all the arm waving and threatening that went on amid managerial circles about about the downfall of western civ as a result of phreakers… it was humorous at the time and it still is, imo…

  2. CyberKitten says:

    Phreaking is/was weird! I remember reading about it years ago and being amazed that people did that – or even imagined they could do it. But as Gibson rightly said: The Street will always find a way…..

  3. Stephen says:

    Kind of like cassette tapes being pinned as the arch-enemy of the music industry…

  4. Stephen says:

    Did you ever hear about it when it was on-going, like the arrests in the later seventies? (The only news story I can remember from my childhood was the Oklahoma City bombing..)

  5. CyberKitten says:

    Wasn't on my radar at the time, I'm afraid.. We had much bigger fish to fry in the 70's. It was a VERY active decade here!

  6. I first learned about this reading the Steve Jobs' biography – who knew phones could be manipulated in so many ways. Very strange and crazy.

  7. CyberKitten says:

    I did see on a movie that a phone phreaker used a ring-pull from (presumably) a steel can to get a dial tone by unscrewing the mouth piece an connected it to a metal part of the phone housing…. Actually it *might* have been in 'Wargames'.

  8. Inly Saiful says:

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