Whatever Happened to the Phone Phreaks?

Phone phreaks demonstrated that the mundane telephone could become a gateway to virtual adventures which spanned the globe, anticipating the culture of hacking today.


Cartoon from Volume 1, Issue 1 of Telephone Electronics Line (1974), a newsletter devoted to phone phreaking (Archive.org)

"Let's say a shopping center," says the hacker I'm talking to online. He's British, but is using an alias, 'Belial', and I don't know his real name. "The elevators or lifts inside have emergency telephones and these telephones are attached to the PBX [a small telephone network for a building or business]. The speaker inside the lift has an extension like a phone would and you can dial the phone inside the lifts.

"You can monitor what's going on inside, so you can hear the lift saying 'you are on the third floor'. And you can hear people walking in and out, and you can speak to them and prank them. You can say, 'Due to technical issues, we're going to have to cut the cable on this lift, we apologize for any inconvenience this may cause you,' and stuff like that."

He chuckles a bit at this. And I confess that I do too. Belial experimented with phone phreaking in the 1990s as an Internet-curious teenager. He tells me that finding access to things like telephones in elevators was at the time a matter of using computers to "scan" sets of hundreds of numbers for what he terms "gems" -- call destinations (such as people's hotel rooms) which were worth exploring with a little creativity.

This is the point at which "phone phreaking" (hacking the telephone system) and the modern sense of computer hacking intersect. This, essentially, is phreaking's twilight. But where did the practice of accessing internal numbers, or making long-distance calls for free, or setting up phreak "conferences" that could endure from dusk till dawn actually begin? And what is left of it all today?

To answer the first question I spoke to Phil Lapsley, author of a brilliantly researched new book entitled, Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws who Hacked Ma Bell.

Early in our interview I ask Lapsley what his personal favorite stories about phone phreaking are. Without much hesitation, he says, "the early days." "The early days," in this context, refers to phone phreaks of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Many of them were students at top universities like Harvard. Others were gifted engineers.

A few still were blind kids with perfect pitch like Joe Engressia who, through whistling into their telephone at precise frequencies, found ways to unlock a vibrant world of interaction and exploration within which natural sight became irrelevant.

"These people kind of crystallise what I love about this subject," explains Lapsley, "Which is simply the combination of innocence and curiosity. These were not people who were out to make free phone calls, you know, for the sake of making free phone calls. They were just like, 'Wow, what happens if. What happens if I dial this number? What happens if I play this tone?' They were simply curious."

Few capture this sense of wistful curiosity better than 'Captain Crunch'. Like Joe Engressia, Captain Crunch was interviewed in depth for a lengthy 1971 investigation into the world of phone phreaking published by Esquire magazine. This piece later became famous as the document with which Steve Wozniak introduced his friend and future business partner Steve Jobs to phone phreaking before they experimented with the phenomenon themselves.

In the Esquire article, Captain Crunch narrates excitedly to his interviewer Ron Rosenbaum the process by which he connected a single long-distance call via switching stations across Asia, Europe, South Africa, South America and the East coast until he reached a specific telephone in California.

Captain Crunch had in fact wrapped his call the entire way around the globe, for the ringing phone he had been patched through to was one right beside him -- his own second line. Crunch picked up the other receiver and listened to his own voice. "Needless to say I had to shout to hear myself," he told Rosenbaum, "But the echo was far out. Fantastic. Delayed. It was delayed twenty seconds, but I could hear myself talk to myself."

Lapsley and I discuss the idea that it was activity like this which brought us the modern paradigm of a hackable worldwide network. That is, a place full of strange, wonderful and sometimes dangerous things within which people were free to communicate and explore as they saw fit.

"It becomes a playground," Lapsley says, describing phone phreaks' determination to access remote or unusual telephone switchboards. "It becomes a question of... how far can you go. 'How close can you get to the north pole?' That's a game some kids used to play. 'Let's pick a spot to see how close we can get to it.' It becomes in some ways like virtual tourism and there's an infinite chain of puzzles. ... You can keep playing this game over and over again."

At this point Lapsley makes a salient observation. He notes that, with the rise of personal computing, it was generally thought that the "killer app" of computers would be software which would deliver some intelligence or insight to help us solve some problem or other.

"These people kind of crystallise what I love about this subject," explains Lapsley, "Which is simply the combination of innocence and curiosity. These were not people who were out to make free phone calls, you know, for the sake of making free phone calls."

"What turned out to be the killer app was people, right?" argues Lapsley. "It turned out to be people connected together via computers. Email becomes the killer app, or Twitter for example, and all these things are what people get excited about because what people really care about, it turns out, is other people."

Presented by

Chris Baraniuk writes about cultural history, mass media, and the social impact of technology. His website is themachinestarts.com. He is based in London, England.

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