From automated computer system updates configured by IT administrators to ambulance dispatch commands, Belial claims to have captured a fascinating cross-section of 1990s British telephone network activity. He even put all the messages into a database for his own reference. This allowed him to cross-check computer systems he wished to access since he could look up specific IP addresses and machine information. "As a result I was able to find a large amount of access [codes] -- user access, administrator access -- to telephone conferencing systems for large organizations and multi-nationals."
Phone phreaks demonstrated that the telephone, a seemingly mundane device, could become a "gateway" to virtual adventures which spanned the globe.
Belial says he now works professionally in high tech security and tells me that he has, in the past, disclosed system vulnerabilities to organisations potentially at risk. But he comments that such disclosures are rarely taken seriously -- perhaps a symptom of a culture which today can't imagine that telephone systems are really anything to worry about, even though they can to this day provide hackers with access to internal networks.
Since phreaking began with making free calls which shouldn't have been free, it has always occupied a difficult legal space. Phil Lapsley, in his book, charts the herculean efforts AT&T went to over the decades to prosecute and discourage phreaks (and criminals, who often bought blue-boxes) from sponging on their network.
But when I so much as allude to this in an email to 10nix he provides, in no uncertain terms, his view on this issue: "Phreaking has always been about finding and figuring out. It is a disservice to the pioneers of the craft to characterize the goal as theft. The theft was more of a means to an end, and not the goal itself."
In the world of hacking, where interpretation of the law is necessarily somewhat flexible, phreaking and legendary individual phreaks like Captain Crunch have achieved cult status. Depending on who you ask, phone phreaking is either "a dead art" or alive and well even if it "looks different" now.
However, everyone I talked to had a great deal of respect for the global telephone infrastructure, whether or not they had a positive opinion of the companies who own parts of it. As Phil Lapsley put it when I talked to him, phone phreaks demonstrated that the telephone, a seemingly mundane device, could become a "gateway" to virtual adventures which spanned the globe.
Lapsley reiterates to me his belief that this inquisitiveness is a fundamental and valuable part of humanity -- especially for a humanity which day by day absorbs more and more complex machinery for granted, placing it into the background noise of life.
Phone phreaks chose to listen to that noise before spitting oddly sequenced bleeps and tones back at it, "exploding" the quotidian simplicity of the telephone. The aftermath of that explosion has been absorbed into contemporary hacker culture as inspiration, as analogue, even as myth.
We in the mainstream, who are never inclined to unravel the infrastructure which surrounds us, will forever miss the thrill of the hack, the companionship of phreaks and the lost magic of 2,600 Hz.