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"Phreaking Out Ma Bell"
March 24, 2013 11:08 AM   Subscribe

How a buccaneering young engineer built the little blue box that broke into the biggest network in the world
posted by the man of twists and turns (17 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite

 
Huh, I didn't think anyone knew exactly who invented the blue box. Captain Crunch used to claim he was the guy who discovered the articles in a library, but he's a liar who liked to promote himself.
posted by DecemberBoy at 11:14 AM on March 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


This is an excerpt from Exploding The Phone.
Documents and links
posted by the man of twists and turns at 11:15 AM on March 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


Swear I've heard of him before (I used to be connected indirectly to phreaks via the BBS culture), but he's not even mentioned on Wikipedia. It's important to note that (mostly blind) "analog" phreakers already existed, using various musical instruments or even just whistling to imitate the tones, and in any case the protocols disseminated in various ways and were perhaps completely independently discovered by others.
posted by dhartung at 11:35 AM on March 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


Lots of untold stories from back then. There was a small group of phone tinkerers in my home town in the late 70s/early 80s, down in the depths of the West Country, who built their own modems and tried all sorts of things with the network. Not so much trying to grab trunk lines without clearing down. but looking through the allocated phone numbers and experimenting with the nominally unallocated gaps. Internationally, too - you could get about three seconds to Moscow from a call box for tuppence, just long enough to shout "KGB!" to whoever answered.

And there were interesting things on the UK's telephone network - the civil defence early warning network was quietly run in conjunction with the public Speaking Clock service, and there were things one could do with the 'hidden' DTMF keys A-D (DTMF generates 16 pairs of tones from a 4x4 matrix; 0-9, * and # only take up 12), on systems that coped with tone dialling. Not all did, by any means.

But then dial-up networks started to appear, and they were much more appealing to the, ah, experimentally minded collector of interesting numbers.
posted by Devonian at 11:39 AM on March 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


Phil Lapsley gave a lunchtime talk at SparkFun the other day, kind of the quick nutshell history of phreaking and "holy crap look at what an extraordinary thing the phone system was". Really well presented. Exploding the Phone is next in the to-read pile on my desk. I didn't notice until later that his name is on RFC 977.

Huh, I didn't think anyone knew exactly who invented the blue box. Captain Crunch used to claim he was the guy who discovered the articles in a library, but he's a liar who liked to promote himself.

I probably came across as a jerk talking to Phil, 'cause my own brief experience with Crunch (who he interviewed quite a bit for the book) left me pretty burned on the guy. I feel bad about this. The dude is clearly kind of nuts, but I think he's also had a fairly rough go of it.
posted by brennen at 12:33 PM on March 24, 2013


Hours spent on Bell System searching out the numbers that led to interesting carriers, or call-back numbers, or the coolest ones; some kind of 'chat' lines where whoever showed up could talk to each other. My buddy was into the culture pretty deep though- he salvaged enough relay blocks from the dumpsters behind the local exchange to build a mini-exchange in his basement that connected houses on our city block. The old rotating-type relays were pretty cool. Long live Western Electric.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 12:55 PM on March 24, 2013 [3 favorites]


When I was a kid in the late 70s, I learned of a number that I could call that would "play" a fast-paced mechanistic song of tones and what sounded like relay clicks, then hang up. I lost the number long ago and still have no idea what I was listening to.
posted by double block and bleed at 1:09 PM on March 24, 2013


It didn't sound anything like a dial-up modem, even the 300 baud sort that my brother had.
posted by double block and bleed at 1:12 PM on March 24, 2013


There were - are - a lot of automated line tests on the system, primarily for engineers out on jobs to help fault-find and check repairs. Some of those send sequences of tones to check line condition at various frequencies, others are interactive and run tests in response to tones from the engineer.

All very collectable.
posted by Devonian at 1:39 PM on March 24, 2013


I worked on a project for an early-ish VOIP provider and the one thing that stuck out: all of the really cool features they offered (call hunting, etc) turned out to be things that were described in Bell Labs docs from the '60s and supported in the hardware, just no one bothered to implement them.
posted by yerfatma at 2:18 PM on March 24, 2013


yerfatma: "just no one bothered to implement them."

Without high business rates being paid by the person requesting, anyway. ;)
posted by wierdo at 2:27 PM on March 24, 2013


Obligatory link in any mention of phreaking: Secrets of the Little Blue Box, originally published in Esquire, reprinted on Slate forty years later. The hook for the republication is that Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were inspired after reading it to make their own blue boxes, a few years before Woz created his own microcomputer. (For Captain Crunch haters: John Draper comes off as a real creep in it, talking about how he used his phreaking skills to eavesdrop in on a woman that he had a crush on, and talking about Ma Bell as if she were a real person.)
posted by Halloween Jack at 2:30 PM on March 24, 2013


Despite growing up after most of the exchanges were converted to digital (and SS7, so no luck using foreign offices), my parents had a lake house outside a small town that, until recently, still had required party lines and step by step switches. You could in fact blow 2600 on one of those lines and get a trunk.

Sadly, the day I discovered this was not a day I had the capability of following it up with MF to do something useful with it.

Eventually, I got interested in trying to find CALEA dial-ins in the mid-90s. Despite war dialing for a week, I never found any. Did find a lot of modems (and a lot of people saying "hello? HELLO?!"), though. I did find a ringback number, ANAC, and a few test tones, though.

By the late 90s I was legitimately working on phone systems and just asked the Bell techs for ANAC and test tone numbers and they were (mostly) happy to share. This was good, because all the effin' test numbers changed when we changed area codes. That's also when my cell phone number stopped being (regional) toll free. My number was out of a block that was part of a reverse billing arrangement, so calls from within the LATA were not charged to the caller even if it was normally long distance to my cell phone number's rate center. More interestingly, people could call my cell from a (bell) payphone without depositing money.
posted by wierdo at 2:43 PM on March 24, 2013 [3 favorites]


I worked on a project for an early-ish VOIP provider and the one thing that stuck out: all of the really cool features they offered (call hunting, etc) turned out to be things that were described in Bell Labs docs from the '60s and supported in the hardware, just no one bothered to implement them.

Bell labs did some really amazing work in the postwar period.
posted by gjc at 4:30 PM on March 24, 2013


I believe that "Ma Bell Is A Cheap Mother" would have been a more appropriate title for this post.
posted by mikelieman at 5:24 PM on March 24, 2013


I remember the first blue box I ever saw: an Apple 1. Lots of people know that Woz and Jobs sold blue boxes, but it is not widely known that the Apple 1 itself was designed for blue boxing.

I remember the demo well. When I was about 16 years old, I used to visit a place called "The Computer Store" in Davenport, Iowa, every month to pick up the latest magazines like Kilobaud Microcomputing. I was friends with the techs because I'd pick their brains about what computer kit to buy when I saved up enough money. One of the techs was trying to convince me to buy the Apple 1, but I didn't like it because it didn't come with a keyboard or power supply. I eventually bought the Processor Tech SOL-20. Oops.

The tech gave me a demo to try to sell me on the virtues of the Apple 1. He brought me back to the test bench and showed me an Apple 1 with a frequency monitor and a phone keypad attached to it. So he tapped a few keys, and said "watch this!" He picked up the nearby phone handset, held it over the motherboard, and a 2600hz tone screeched out of the earpiece. I heard the response tone, and the guy said I could now phone anyone for free. Apparently he was using the RF emissions from the motherboard to induce the tone in the handset.

Just as he said this, the store owner suddenly came in the back door, saw what the tech was doing, and said "Hey I told you no more phone phreaking. You're fired! And you, get the hell out of here, too." Oh crap.
posted by charlie don't surf at 4:15 AM on March 25, 2013 [3 favorites]


There's another excerpt from the book at io9: The 1970s Version of 4Chan Relied on Telephones for Their Pranks
posted by homunculus at 6:09 PM on March 25, 2013


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