Phreaking

Capn Crunch

2600

Phreaking is a slang term coined to describe the activity of hobbyists who study, experiment with, or explore, telecommunication systems, such as equipment and systems connected to public telephone networks. ‘Phreak,’ ‘phreaker,’ or ‘phone phreak’ are names used for and by individuals who participate in phreaking. The term first referred to groups who had reverse engineered the system of tones used to route long-distance calls. By re-creating these tones, phreaks could switch calls from the phone handset, allowing free calls to be made around the world.

Electronic tone generators known as ‘blue boxes’ became a staple of the phreaker community, including future Apple Inc. cofounders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. The blue box era came to an end with the ever increasing use of computerized phone systems, which sent dialling information on a separate, inaccessible channel. By the 1980s, much of the system in the US and Western Europe had been converted. Phreaking has since become closely linked with computer hacking.

Phone phreaking got its start in the late 1950s in the United States. Its golden age was the late 1960s and early 1970s. Phone phreaks spent a lot of time dialing around the telephone network to understand how the phone system worked. They listened to the pattern of tones to figure out how calls were routed. They read obscure telephone company technical journals. They learned how to impersonate operators and other telephone company personnel. They dug through telephone company trash bins to find ‘secret’ documents. They broke into telephone company buildings at night and wired up their own telephones. They built tone generating devices (e.g. blue, black, and red boxes) to help them explore the network and make free phone calls. They hung out on early conference call circuits and ‘loop arounds’ to communicate with one another. They wrote their own newsletters to spread information.

Prior to 1984, long-distance telephone calls were a premium item, with archaic regulations. In some locations, calling across the street counted as long distance. To report that a phone call was long distance meant an elevated importance universally accepted because the calling party is paying by the minute to speak to the called party. Phreaking consisted of techniques to evade the long-distance charges. This evasion was illegal; the crime was called ‘toll fraud.’ Possibly one of the first phreaking methods was switch-hooking, which allows placing calls from a phone where the rotary dial or keypad has been disabled by a key lock or other means to prevent unauthorized calls from that phone. It is done by rapidly pressing and releasing the switch hook to open and close the subscriber circuit, simulating the pulses generated by the rotary dial. Even most current telephone exchanges support this method, as they need to be backward compatible with old subscriber hardware.

The origins of tone-based phone phreaking trace back at least to AT&T’s implementation of fully automatic switches. These switches used tone dialing, a form of in-band signaling, and included some tones which were for internal telephone company use. One internal-use tone was a tone of 2600 Hz which caused a telephone switch to think the call had ended, leaving an open carrier line, which could be exploited to provide free long-distance, and international, calls. At that time, long-distance calls were quite expensive. The tone was discovered in approximately 1957, by Joe Engressia, a blind seven-year-old boy. Engressia had perfect pitch, and discovered that whistling the fourth E above middle C (a frequency of 2600 Hz) would stop a dialed phone recording. Unaware of what he had done, Engressia called the phone-company and asked why the recordings had stopped. Joe Engressia, who later legally changed his name to Joybubbles, is considered to be the father of phreaking.

Other early phreaks, such as ‘Bill from New York,’ began to develop a rudimentary understanding of how phone networks worked. Bill discovered that a recorder he owned could also play the tone at 2600 Hz with the same effect. John Draper discovered through his friendship with Engressia that the free whistles given out in Cap’n Crunch cereal boxes also produced a 2600 Hz tone when blown (providing his nickname, ‘Captain Crunch’). This allowed control of phone systems that worked on single frequency (SF) controls. One could sound a long whistle to reset the line, followed by groups of whistles (a short tone for a ‘1,’ two for a ‘2,’ etc.) to dial numbers.

While single-frequency worked on certain phone routes, the most common signaling on the then long-distance network was multi-frequency (MF) controls. The slang term for these tones and their use was ‘Marty Freeman.’ The specific frequencies required were unknown to the general public until 1964, when the Bell System published the information in the ‘Bell System Technical Journal’ in an article describing the methods and frequencies used for inter-office signalling. The journal was intended for the company’s engineers; however, it found its way to various college campuses. With this one article, the Bell System accidentally gave away the ‘keys to the kingdom,’ and the intricacies of the phone system were at the disposal of people with a knowledge of electronics.

The second generation of phreaks arose at this time, including the New Yorkers ‘Evan Doorbell,’ ‘Ben Decibel,’ and ‘Neil R. Bell’ and Californians Mark Bernay, Chris Bernay, and ‘Alan from Canada.’ Each conducted their own independent exploration and experimentation of the telephone network, initially on an individual basis, and later within groups as they discovered each other in their travels. Evan, Ben, and Neil formed a group of phreaks, known as ‘Group Bell.’ Mark Bernay initiated a similar group named the ‘Mark Bernay Society.’ Both groups received fame amongst today’s phone phreakers for Internet publication of their collection of telephone exploration recordings. These recordings, conducted in the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s are available at Mark’s website ‘Phone Trips.’

1971 saw the beginnings of ‘YIPL’ (Youth International Party Line), a publication started by Abbie Hoffman and Al Bell to provide information to Yippies on how to ‘beat the man,’ mostly involving telephones. In 1973, Al Bell would start ‘TAP’ (Technological American Party), a major source for subversive technical information among phreaks and hackers all over the world. ‘TAP’ ran from 1973 to 1984, with Al Bell handing over the magazine to ‘Tom Edison’ in the late 70s. A controversially suppressed article ‘How to Build a ‘Phone Phreaks’ box’ in ‘Ramparts Magazine’ in June of 1972 touched off a firestorm of interest in phreaking. This article published simple schematic plans of a ‘black box’ used to make free long-distance phone calls, and included a very short parts list that could be used to construct one. Bell sued ‘Ramparts,’ forcing the magazine to pull all copies from shelves, but not before numerous copies were sold and many regular subscribers received them.

In the 1980s, the rise of the personal computer and the popularity of computer bulletin board systems (BBSes) (accessed via modem) created an influx of tech-savvy users. These BBSes became popular for computer hackers and others interested in the technology, and served as a medium for previously scattered independent phone phreaks to share their discoveries and experiments. This not only led to unprecedented collaboration, but also spread the notion of phreaking to others who took it upon themselves to study, experiment with, or exploit the telephone system. This was also at a time when the telephone company was a popular subject of discussion in the US, as the monopoly of AT&T Corporation was forced into divestiture. During this time, exploration of telephone networks diminished, and phreaking focused more on toll fraud.

Computer hackers began to use phreaking methods to find the telephone numbers for modems belonging to businesses, which they could exploit later. Groups then formed around the BBS hacker/phreaking (H/P) community such as the famous ‘Masters of Deception’ (‘Phiber Optik’) and ‘Legion of Doom’ (‘Erik Bloodaxe’) groups. In 1985, an underground e-zine called ‘Phrack’ (a combination of the words ‘Phreak’ and ‘Hack’) began circulation among BBSes, and focused on hacking, phreaking, and other related technological subjects. In the early 1990s, H/P groups like ‘Masters of Deception’ and ‘Legion of Doom’ were shut down by the US Secret Service’s ‘Operation Sundevil.’ Phreaking as a subculture saw a brief dispersion in fear of criminal prosecution in the 1990s, before the popularity of the internet initiated a reemergence of phreaking as a subculture in the US and spread phreaking to international levels. Increasingly, the concept of toll fraud is frowned upon by serious phreakers, primarily under the influence of the website ‘Phone Trips,’ put up by second generation phreaks Mark Bernay and Evan Doorbell.

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