We interview Phil Lapsley whose book, Exploding the Phone, chronicles the early phone hackers who learned to exploit the weaknesses in AT&T’s phone system.
What is a “phone phreak”?
In its original meaning, a phone phreak is someone who is obsessively interested in learning about, playing with, or exploring the telephone system. That is, figuring out how the telephone works, how calls get routed from one place to another, and understanding various “glitches” in the network. It also came come to have a more pejorative meaning, which is someone who is interested in making free phone calls. In this way, “phone phreak” is a bit like the word “hacker” – a hacker originally was someone who was curious about computers and wanted to learn how they work, and how to make them work better. Later, the term morphed into someone who wanted to break into computers. You can think of phone phreaks as the original network hackers.
Who would you consider the Adam (or Eve) of phone phreaking? How did they get started and how far did they take it?
The earliest phone phreak I’ve been able to identify was a young man who went by the nickname “Davy Crockett.” Back in the mid-1950s he figured out how to use a Davy Crockett Cat and Canary Bird Call Flute – a little 50-cent whistle they used to sell at Woolworth stores – to mimic a special tone that telephone operators used to communicate with one another. By imitating this tone he could place his own long distance calls for free. But his motivation in doing this was really just to see if it could be done – he told me about making calls from a pay phone that would loop around from one city to another and come back to a pay phone right next to him, just for the sake of doing it!
And by the way, I’ve yet to find any real “Eve”s in phone phreaking, at least until the early 1980s. Prior to that, it seemed to be a hobby entirely made up of teenage boys and young men.
A large percentage of the original phone hackers were blind. It seems way beyond sheer coincidence. Do you have any thoughts on why this was the case?
No one seems to know for sure, but I have a few thoughts here. One is that many blind people spent a lot of time on the telephone, since their friendships were often more geographically spread out than sighted people. In addition, you have to remember that back in the 1960s and 1970s, long-distance phone calls were really expensive, so blind folks with a far-flung network of friends had a real economic incentive to figure out how to make free phone calls. And finally, the telephone is a great equalizer between the sighted and the blind: as one person observed, we’re all blind on the telephone.
John Draper is an interesting character in your book. Like the phone hacking subculture, his activities seemed to span from a more innocent to a less innocent time. Would you share a little bit about him?
John Draper, aka “Captain Crunch,” is a smart, eccentric fellow and a gifted electronics technician. Through a freak coincidence he ended up meeting some blind kids who introduced him to phone phreaking in the late 1960s. He was instantly hooked and got really into it. Unfortunately, Draper hasn’t always had the best judgment and proceeded to repeatedly get in trouble with the law. In 1972 he was convicted of a felony and fined $1,000 for making a free telephone call to a radio station in Australia. But instead of giving up the hobby, he kept at it and eventually used his phone phreak knowledge to wire tap the San Francisco field office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation! (He was doing it just as a lark, but somehow that didn’t make the feds feel any better.) He ended up being the first phone phreak to serve time in a federal prison. But he had another first as well: he went on to write the first word processor for the IBM PC.
Who were “Berkeley Blue” and “Oaf Tobar”?
Berkeley Blue and Oaf Tobar were the aliases of a couple of phone phreaks from the 1970s – their real names were Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, the founders of Apple Computer. Wozniak (who wrote the Foreword to the book) learned about phone phreaking from an article in a 1971 copy of Esquire magazine that he found on his mom’s kitchen table. He initially thought the article was fiction but about halfway through he figured out that it must be real. He called his friend Steve Jobs, who was then a senior in high school, and started reading him the article over the phone. “I think this stuff is real, we’ve gotta figure this out.” Before long the two were driving down to the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center to raid their technical library and figure out how to make a “blue box,” an electronic gizmo that mimicked the tones that controlled the telephone network. Within a year the duo were selling blue boxes door to door in the dorms at Berkeley. It was their first business venture together and Steve Jobs later commented that, “If we hadn’t built blue boxes, there would have been no Apple computer.”
Did the hackers ever do serious damage, aside from AT&T’s lost income? Was there ever a Julian Assange-type accessing of top-secret information?
They never caused any serious damage that I know about. Probably the most disturbing things that the phone phreaks did was figure out how to break into the military’s “AUTOVON” telephone system and to use their blue boxes to remotely wiretap telephone calls in certain cities. But in both of these cases there was no actual damage caused, and the phreaks weren’t doing it to be malicious, it was just a combination of curiosity and pranksterism that drove them – that and some ego gratification, to see if they could do it.
What ended phone phreaking? Has it ended?
There are still phone phreaks today. The old hacks from the 1960s and 1970s – things like blue boxes and such – no longer work, of course, because the telephone network has evolved. The techniques have changed but the underlying impulse is still there. Phone phreaking has also merged with computer hacking, since phones and computers both use the same technology today. At its essence, phone phreaking is about curiosity. It’s about understanding how a complicated technological system works. It’s about playing with technology, and seeing if you can make a piece of equipment do something that it wasn’t designed to do – mostly, just for the sheer joy of figuring something out. As long as there are telephones and curious kids, there will be phone phreaks.