Phreaking subculture alive and well
February 29, 2008 9:01 AM   Subscribe

If you thought phone phreaking was a dying art, you may be surprised to read the story of "Li'l Hacker", as told by old-school hack/phreaker Kevin Poulsen.
posted by Roach (11 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Great link. He mentions "Blind hackers were a part of the first generation of phone phreaks in the 1970s"; anyone who finds this interesting should also read up on Joybubbles.
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 9:54 AM on February 29, 2008

[This is good]
posted by drezdn at 11:27 AM on February 29, 2008

I had always thought that manipulating Child Protection Services in order to make someones life miserable would be one of the most dastardly social engineering type-things you could do to someone. This 'swatting' crew not only did that, but upped the ante considerably. Black hat indeed.
posted by Roach at 11:38 AM on February 29, 2008

Banging a girl who lied about being 16 instead of 18 == 5 years in jail and a lifetime as a pariah with a target on your back via the sex offender registry.

Diverting police resources to terrorize an innocent family and create a very real chance of getting them killed == gee, we're not sure what we can do to him.

Here's a hint: Some sins of youthful indiscretion really do deserve to be harshly punished, and I've just listed one of them.
posted by localroger at 11:52 AM on February 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

There was a huge debate in the 1980s whether the "code kidz" era of primarily using codes garnered by mindless scanning of third-party long distance companies was "phreaking" at all; it was mostly considered on the level of tying a string to a quarter to yank it out of a vending machine, something barely on the surface of what those who had come before were fascinated by. For those of us who did it, it was expedience in the face of daunting, crushing telephone bills, a time when you could rack up four-figure ones simply for calling another state. A few of us paid lip service to the "old school" phreaking and I like to think some of us took an honest interest in it. Certainly there was no dearth of information lying about in the form of g-philes or transcribed technical information regarding concepts like ESS, Crossbar, REMOBS, Bridges, Loops and other aspect of telephones. Bulletin Board Systems made them available to a much wider audience than previous, although that audience was always somewhat confined.

It is hard, coming from the not-thought-well Code Kidz era, to find any common ground with the people portrayed in Poulsen's article; while there are plenty of cases where the phrases "think of the children" or "someone could be seriously hurt" don't apply, I can't see how sending armed SWAT teams into the wrong homes at crazy hours couldn't have potentially led to some very unpleasant possibilities. That it didn't appeared to be luck more than anything else.

I respect Kevin very much, and had the opportunity to be interviewed by him a number of years back; I thought the article he wrote from that interview was very well done and I felt I was done right by it while still providing entertainment for the reader. I am therefore resistant to indicating he's played things up here, but I can't tell how much of the burning distaste I have for people portrayed in this article is in the writing. I live in Boston and am part of what thinks of itself as the "hacker/phreaker scene" but the one I am part of is outside any school and dates back a couple decades. When I read of people getting their "start" in 2004, I can see how we might have missed each other.

I feel, therefore, no kinship with any of them. I wish they'd call themselves something different. They don't appear to deserve the term.
posted by jscott at 12:15 PM on February 29, 2008 [4 favorites]

jscott - thanks for the insightful comment. Sounds like you and I are of the same era. Do you happen to have a link to Kevin's article that you mentioned? I'm a fan of his writing and journalism and would love to read it. MefiMail would be fine if posting it here breaks the guidelines.
posted by Roach at 1:45 PM on February 29, 2008

I can't see how sending armed SWAT teams into the wrong homes at crazy hours couldn't have potentially led to some very unpleasant possibilities.

People who call themselves "phreaks" from the mid-90s on are basically just pranksters who happen to use the phone system to irritate people to different degrees. See the PLA ( for an example of this. They certainly aren't like the LOD, and aren't really interested in learning how the system works and exploring it.

Even the code kids often did stuff like finding and using loops, scanning for interesting tones, hacking PBXes, etc. On the other hand, there was no shortage of stuff like getting an enemy's line disconnected, forwarding a retail store's number at Christmas to theirs, beige boxing off their line and leaving it connected to 1-900-HOT-BOYS for hours, etc.

Real phreaking isn't dead, though. If anything it's even better now with all the new toys there are to play with. You can now build a PBX in your home with just a Linux box and some cheap hardware using the Asterisk open source PBX suite, which opens up all kinds of neat possibilities. Stuff like cell phone hacking also falls within the realm of phreaking. Check out Old Skool Phreak for some thing the modern kids are doing that doesn't involve glorified prank calling.
posted by DecemberBoy at 2:38 PM on February 29, 2008

The article that Poulsen wrote about me, nearly seven years ago: The Secret History.
posted by jscott at 2:42 PM on February 29, 2008 [2 favorites]

Awesome, Jason! Textfiles has been an invaluable resource during my own recollections of times gone by. (The first BBS I ever ran was on Wildcat! in '91. I was on FidoNET before that, at age 11 or so, via various local boards).
posted by Roach at 3:05 PM on February 29, 2008

Thinking of it a few days later, and before the system closes comments, I feel I have to defend the PLA (Phone Losers of America). While they're also pranksters and have caused their share of chaos, they are also honestly interested in phreaking, the history of it, and bringing it to contemporary regard. I also have a number of works they've done, mostly in the audio and video realms. But for all their pranksterism and chaos-causing, I never heard of or witnessed the sort of destructive and reckless regard for life and limb as this kid has shown.

Reports are coming to me from associates up and down "the realm"; his sociopathism appears portrayed accurately.
posted by jscott at 5:36 AM on March 1, 2008

You all must be reading some different article than the one I read & remembering some different hacker subculture than the one I'm familiar with. This kid is definitely at the high end of the scale for cruelty & reckless endangerment but he's hardly alone there. Mitnick's Roscoe Gang were constantly involved in revenge-hacking each other & members of the apparently now-sainted LoD were even known to prank 911, although never to my knowledge with hostage calls. And the kid does seem to bring a fair amount of technical expertise in service to his attacks; REMOBS & RCMAC aren't beginner level systems to mess with.
posted by scalefree at 10:47 AM on March 6, 2008

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