Hackers Before They Were 'Hackers': Phone Phreaks!
Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives. September 13, 1973, Vol. XVIII, No. 37
Phone Phreak Convention by Ron Rosenbaum
One year ago the phone company had the phone phreaks on the run.
On May 8, 1972, a team of FBI and phone company security men arrested John Draper, alias "Captain Crunch," the most notorious phone phreak of all. The Captain's cherished computerized "Blue Box on wheels" was silenced.
And Joe Engressia, the original blind phone phreak genius who learned to make free calls by whistling into the mouthpiece -- Joe had been busted and forced to abandon the underground phone phreak central office he had set up in his Memphis rooming house.
Police and phone company security agents had broken up phone phreak networks, and clandestine Blue Box manufacturing operations in Seattle, San Francisco, Cleveland, and Long Island. Crack phone company security teams had devised a combination of special computer programs, electronic pulse measuring equipment, and intensive surveillance to crack down on Blue Box and Black Box users.
One year ago when the First Annual Phone Phreak Convention opened in a basement meeting room in the Hotel Diplomat, phone company security agents seemed to outnumber genuine phone phreaks. The agents hardly bothered disguising their identities. They carried cameras and tape recorders. One stuffed phone phreak literature into an official-looking envelope with "Office of the District Attorney" printed on it.
"Why are you taping this?" I asked one of the beefy "photographers" in dark glasses and "hippie" clothes as he held up a small very professional-looking cassette machine to record every word of a workshop on Blue Box techniques.
"I'm not taping anything. This isn't a tape recorder. This is a special portable radio," he told me.
"Why isn't it playing anything?" I asked.
"I'm not in the mood for music," he said.
Things were different at this year's convention. The Lone Ranger masks for instance: "Al Bell," the 20-year-old whiz kid who organized both conventions and who publishes Youth International Party Line, the fact-filled phone phreak newsletter, brought a carton full of black Lone Ranger masks to this year's gathering and handed them out at the door. Most of the serious -- i.e., criminally active -- phone freaks put the masks on. Some had arrived already equipped with false noses, fake mustaches, and wigs. If there were agents present taking pictures this year, they were going to end up with some very silly shots.
But there were no obvious agent types to be seen. None of the hulking crew cut and dark glasses types that pervaded and intimidated last year's convention. And if there were any obvious types the Lone Ranger masks protected them as much as they did the phone phreaks. (The only participants not wearing masks, it seemed, were a group of four blind phone phreaks and their two seeing eye dogs.)
Another difference: last year's convention barely filled the seedy basement meeting room of the Diplomat. This year's gathering was big enough to crowd the entire seedy "Grand Ballroom" on the third floor.
The phone phreak movement seemed to be moving up from the underground on several other fronts. An NBC network camera crew was present to film the highlights of the five-hour gathering. There were screenings of instructional videotapes illustrating every form of cheating the phone company from number 14 brass washers (they are said to work like quarters) to sophisticated Blue Boxes.
But more important than that, the tide seems to have turned in the chronic technological warfare between phone phreak inventiveness and phone company counter-measures. Just when the phone company security men seemed to have the Blue Box operators on the run, certain advanced phone phreaks perfected an entirely new weapon: The Red Box. Last Saturday's Second Annual Phone Phreak Convention will be remembered as the one in which the Red Box made its official debut.
A bit of explanatory history. First there was the "Cheese Box." Bookies invented it in the '30s, the story goes. Bettors dialed the number of a phone the bookie had installed in his mother-in-law's kitchen. The Cheese Box wired to the phone caused it to ring a phone in the bookie shop across town. When the cops traced the phone number and pulled a raid, they'd find only the Cheese Box and the mother-in-law instead of a gambling operation. By the time they found the real gambling operation there would be nothing left to find.
Next there was the "Black Box." Reportedly invented in the late '40s, the Black Box is a relatively cheap and simple resistor device which, when attached to a home phone, turns all incoming long distance calls into free calls. Its use spread from gamblers to ordinary citizens. Recently the phone company has come up with reliable ways of detecting and pouncing on Black Box users.
And then the Blue Box. The Blue Box makes all outgoing calls anywhere in the world, for as long as you want, free. A typical Blue Box user goes into a phone booth, dials 555-1212 or any toll-free 800 number. Then he presses his Blue Box against the mouthpiece of the phone, presses the top button thereby producing a beep tone of precisely 2600 cycles per second. For complex reasons which won't be explained here, that beep knocks the 555 or 800 party off the wire but sets the Blue Box owner up on a toll-free long distance "tandem" line. Then, using the other 12 buttons on his Blue Box control panel, he can proceed to beep out the tones for codes and numbers to connect him free of charge with any other phone in the world. If the Blue Box operator never uses the same phone booth twice his risk of detection is minimal. Captain Crunch was able to stand in one phone booth and send his voice all the way around the world to the adjoining booth by way of Tehran, Johannesburg, and Sydney. But Captain Crunch made the mistake of using the same phone booth twice, once too often.
The Red Box is different. The Red Box -- if it does what the phone phreaks say it does -- will be much harder to detect.
"The phone company did itself in again," one of Al Bell's associates, and a Red Box specialist, told me. "It used to be we'd make tape recordings of the sounds of nickels dimes and quarters dropping into the coin box, the chimes you know, and then we'd just play them into the phone and the operator couldn't tell the difference. Now they take it out of the hands of the operators and they have coins trigger electronic pulse tones when you drop them in. What the Red Box does is simulate those pulses accurately that the phone equipment is fooled into thinking you actually paid for the call. You don't use any 800 or 555 numbers -- there's no way they can ever tell you didn't pay for the call unless they're there to count the money in the box before and after you make it. But they can't be so you're golden. They can't beat it."
"THE NEW 1974 MODEL RED BOX!" a mock majestic voice boomed over the Grand Ballroom hubbub. On six tv monitors scattered around the ballroom floor a videotape explaining the theory, practice and construction of a Red Box began running.
"Isn't that a little bulky?" I asked the Red Box man, indicating a demonstration model Red Box which had been set up in the middle of the ballroom floor and which had attracted a crowd of admirers.
"The demo model is, sure, but nobody goes into a phone booth with that. They're making them now -- well I've scene one that was smaller than a Sucrets package, in fact the guy carried it around inside a Sucrets package. They're all using I.C.s these days."
"Yeah integrated circuits, they come in a miniaturized printed chip. I know one guy who made a Red Box so small..."
I wandered over to the Red Box demonstration model. A circle of phone phreaks surrounded it. They all had personal cassette recorders in their hands, and one after another they were plugging their remote jacks into a socket in the Red Box console and recording the nickel, dime, and quarter pulses produced therein. A few yards away another circle had formed around a big machine which produced precise Blue Box phone number tones, and as one jack after another was plugged in the phone phreaks gossiped and exchanged trade secrets. On the far side of the ballroom a group of beginning phone phreaks were gathered around and plugging themselves into yet another source box: this one producing the indispensable 2600-cycle master tone.
Meanwhile on the videotape monitors two creatures dressed in long white laboratory coats and lifelike pig's-head masks were cackling with glee as they pulled out the intestinal wiring of a prostrate pay phone to demonstrate the theory of the Red Box. Their voices were soon obscured by quavering electronic moans and sine-whines as the operation proceeded to its conclusion.
And wandering across the ballroom floor from one sound source to another were the four blind phone phreaks and their seeing eye dogs. They were all close friends, but two of them, a teenage boy and girl, looked like they were closer than that. They touched each other gently as they made their way through Lone Ranger masked phone phreaks, listening for familiar voices.
About this time I came upon the indefatigable "Al Bell" as he was making the rounds of the workshops (Credit Card Coding in Area 1, Con Ed Meter Freezing in Area 2, Blue Box Seminar in Area 3, etc.) I had a question for Al. Is the Red Box the end of the line for phone phreak inventions for a while, or is there already something new in the works?
"There is," Al said, "but I can't tell you what it's really like?"
"Well," he said reluctantly, "The people working on it are tentatively calling it the White Box. But I can't tell you what it'll do."
"Not a hint?"
"All I can say is that you might call it a counter counter device."
"Counter counter. Let's just say the White Box might turn out to bug some of the phone company people who've been bugging us."
It was not until the last hour of the convention that I found a phone company security agent. A phone phreak who knew me from a magazine story I had done about Blue Boxes came up to me and pointed to two men standing at the rear of the Blue Box seminar in Area 3.
"Those two guys, see the small one with the vest and the big one with all the tattoos on his arms? A friend of mine took the same flight down here from Rochester this morning. They admitted to him they were security guys."
Neither one of the two men wore Lone Ranger masks. They responded with surprising geniality when I asked them if they were phone company security men.
"Yeah, I work for a phone company," the man with the tattooed arms told me, "but not Bell. I'm with an independent company."
He wouldn't say.
"Did they pay you to come down here?"
"No we're here on our won. Curiosity. Gathering information. Keeping tabs on what these guys are up to. We exchange some information with the Bell security people so we have a good idea, but you want to see it first hand you know."
"See anything new here that has you worried, you hadn't heard about before?"
"No. We get some problems with Blue Boxes now and then, but it's nothing new to us."
"What about the Red Box?"
"Well we heard about it, we got some warnings on it, but we haven't run into any up our way yet."
"Think it could be a problem?"
"Could make things interesting for a while I guess. I guess we're counting on the Bell people to come up with something to stop it before it gets out of hand."
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]
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