Phone Phreaking History & Impact on Telecommunications

Phone Phreaking History & Impact on Telecommunications

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What Is Phreaking?

Phreaking; a term used to describe the sub-culture of people who explore telecommunication systems and test the limits of them. The term phreak is a combination of the words ‘phone’ and ‘freak’. (Wikipedia) It is essentially a form of computer hacking (and I use that term loosely) but with phone systems. Phreakers have found ways to intercept and manipulate telephone calls and voicemail boxes, thereby changing the destination, eavesdropping, destroying the original content, or simply make calls for ‘free’. (Wikipedia) Participants in this culture normally call themselves phreakers or phone phreaks.

The development of phone phreaking is as old as telephony itself. As the earliest documented cases of phone phreaking are from 1878, when adolescent boys first worked as telephone operators. (Wallace Wang) The original telephone switches required a human interface, someone had to manually make a physical line connection between the originating call and the destination call and hiring young teens was the cheap and easy way for Bell Telephone to do the job. But they quickly realized the error of this when they found several of their customers being pranked, teased, or had their conversations listened in on by the teens. And hence the telephone operator job became that of the young professional looking female secretaries instead, since the young ladies were less likely to insult Bell’s customers.

Phreaking became extremely popular in the mid 1960s all through the 1980s, slowly decreasing in popularity in the 1990s, as the age of the internet boomed and our phreakers found far more interesting things to play with online. With the development of Voice over IP services, many telecommunications companies were switching out their old phone systems for this new technology. However, the phreakers followed this shift with new waves of curiosity. But even with this switch over, phone phreaking still exists today. And its impact on the history of telephony has been an extraordinary one. It has pushed telecommunications to strive, to change, and to keep up with the rest of technology.

It should be of no surprise to the telephone industry that their equipment and services are just too interesting for curious youth. The telephone systems grew up right along with phreaks, creating a symbiotic love-hate relationship. If not for the constant poking, the phone systems would not be as secure as they are today with a laundry list of regulations to protect them and without the phone systems, our young curious teens would not have machines to challenge their intellect.


Phone Hacking Vs ‘Regular’ Hacking

The general public has held a morbid curiosity to stretch the uses and limitations of telephone systems since their first appearance. It is human nature for us to test our own limits, either physically or mentally. But a huge part of this nature is to test the limitations of other people and by extension, their work. This explanation has been used countless times when a hacker explains his/her reasoning behind his/her behavior. And it often times comes down to ‘I wanted to see if I could.’ A relatively harmless statement on its own, but with a vast potential to turn destructive or at the very least, expensive. This is why the term ‘hacker’ derives so many emotions and has the unique opportunity to fall into either a ‘good guy’ / ‘bad guy’ position with ease. There is no guarantee which side a hacker might fall on. And to complicate things further, it is not as simple as good, bad, black, or white. There is a huge gray area that the majority falls into. This could change on a case by case situation. This uncertainty makes people uncomfortable, the inability to classify someone easily. So the public associates the term ‘hacker’ with the unknown, the possibility of being evil or dangerous, regardless if any one specific hacker intends that or not.

Let me define what I mean by ‘regular’ hacking. When we think of ‘hacking’, most people have an image of a shadowy person in front of a computer screen, stealing passwords, bank account numbers, or creating general chaos and mayhem via the use of a computer and internet cable. We seem to forget the most vital part of that picture, the internet cable. It is the life line, the connection a computer user has with the rest of the world. Most people don’t think of it, but the same company that supplies that internet (normally) also supplies the phone lines. Although that’s a very simplified version, the original telephone company or ILEC holds some power in the delivery of the internet connection to all the customers in their coverage area. So now that I’ve made the distinction that the phone company is normally also your ISP, why is there a difference in phreaking and hacking? Aren’t they both going over the same thing? Not really, and that is where the distinction lies.

At one point in time, phreaking and general hacking had a great deal of cross over. In the 1960s – 1970s, Phreaking was the manipulation of the major communication method at the time. The internet had not been released to the public and computers were only found in government and academic settings. There were large groups of hackers, from many walks of life, all there with the purpose to learn and explore technology. But even though hacking and phreaking were often times done by the same people, it was a very different culture.

Phone phreakers manipulated phone systems. But what makes phone hacking unique is its history, the methods phreakers used to break into the phone systems, and their use of social engineering (a fancy name for con artist). This is a term you do not often hear in today’s environment. That is because hacking has become less personal (in most cases, not all). There are several self contained programs that a hacker can use to gain his/her desired information. There is less need to talk to or manipulate a real person nowadays; the manipulation is done to the system directly. But this was not always the case. Phreaking, at one point, needed a human entry point, a password or an access code that only another human being could provide. A phreaker would have to get the information from an actual person before they could play in the phone system. And there was always the possibility that someone would catch on and deny their access. Forcing the phreaker to start all over again. This type of entry made phreakers very skilled social creatures, they were relaxed, cool, and could think very quickly on their feet. They had to make someone believe, completely, that they were who they said they were and had every right to the information they were asking about. They had to be excellent at lying, acting. They had to be completely at ease in any social setting. Not exactly what you think of when you envision a hacker, eh?

However, even this unique strategy would be for the most part, lost to history. People have forgotten the hacking cultures roots. VoIP communications (which is where independent telephone companies are heading) has blocked many old phreaking methods thanks to education and updated systems, but has opened itself up to brand new problems. And phreakers naturally evolved from their social engineering brethren into the more traditional hacker we think of today, out of necessity to keep up with the technology.


The Technical Jargon

Did you ever see a villain in the movies magically take a phone without a keypad and make an outgoing call, just by pressing the switch hook?

I remember seeing Hannibal Lecter in “Red Dragon”, be given a phone with his lawyer on the line, and after hanging up and pressing the button a few times, magically was connected to an operator who switched him over to the FBI headquarters. After sweet talking the secretary, he was given the home address of Will Graham (whom the FBI had in protective custody, hiding from Lecter.) I remember being fascinated by how simple this act was and how much information Lecter was able to acquire. This simple act set up the entire ending and dramatic tone of the serial killer trying to murder the FBI agent and his family. Such a small butterfly ripple causing a tornado. Again, this was magic; the phones don’t really work this way, right? Right? Wrong. Not only was this a perfect portrayal of a social engineering attack but it also demonstrated the famous switch hook method.

If you remember your history lessons on the invention of the telephone, you may remember how involved Bell was with the deaf community, (I won’t go into the controversies, and I only mention this to demonstrate the flaw in how the original phones were created.) Sound, tones, these were the key to the original phone systems and let’s face it, we still rely on them heavily today.

Phreakers discovered that they could make outgoing calls on phones that would otherwise block outgoing calls, just by mimicking the pulse tone on the switch hook by quickly pressing and releasing the switch hook, thereby opening and closing the circuit. This pulse method simulated a rotary dial. The key was knowing what to mimic. Not to alarm anyone, but there are still active phone systems that still support pulse dialing or a combination of pulse and tone dialing. That’s not to say that phone companies do not realize this risk, but rather there is a need to maintain the older methods. Teenagers today have probably never seen a rotary phone, or at least a working one and you would need one to even test this out.

Like pulse dialing, there were other older methods that required physical access to certain equipment or phone systems, but overtime technology has allowed phreakers to access these systems remotely. ESSs (electromechanical switching systems) made their tasks easier to manage and more of a headache for the phone companies to secure. (Wang)

I won’t go into too much detail in the more crude forms of phreaking, as most people know, now, to protect their personal space. But some of the less technologically inclined self professed phreakers used various methods such as shoulder surfing to steal calling card numbers. (Wang) This method was as the title implies, someone leaning over and watching as the caller typed in their account information. But not only is this method no longer reliable, as payphones and calling cards have dwindled and cell phones have prevailed. It’s just tacky and only requires an unsuspecting victim. There’s little to no challenge on the part of the phreaker.

So let’s focus on the boxes. These are what everyone thinks of when they think of phone phreaking. The rainbow colors of boxes that allow phreakers into the phone systems and manipulate their calls. The main purpose of these boxes was to allow the phreaker free calls, pure and simple. But most boxes only have one purpose, so you would often times find one phreaker will a bag full of boxes, depending on his mood or the scenario.

The blue box; the first and most popular of the boxes, were very simple to use. They emitted the famous 2600Hz tone into an active phone call, forcing the phone switch to think the caller had hung up. Allowing the phreaker to use any number of other tones to tell the phone system what he/she wanted the phone switch to do. And since the phone system thought the originating caller had hung up, there was no way of tracking any further calls or activities, in effect making any subsequent calls free. There were a number of famous phreakers who found they could emulate the proper tone with perfect pitch, naturally. Others like Captain Crunch, used toy whistles. This is getting ahead of myself, but the same technique used on the phones was also used for dial up modems (because if you remember, dial up runs over the phone line). Remember that annoying and distinctive high pitched buzzes, tweets, and whistles our old modems used to get onto the internet? I always thought it was two R2 units arguing. Same idea, they were two computers talking to each other, verifying they were using the same protocol by signaling various tones. But we will explore that in the following sections.

The next box to evolve was the Red box. When payphones still existed people found ways of manipulating them too. (I use that in humor, there are still payphones in various cities, prisons, or hospitals. But their overall use has drastically declined, forcing phone companies to demolish or decommission the majority of those out there. I personally have a love/hate relationship with payphones a few years ago, customers found ways of getting around how their systems worked, causing employees like myself much grief and technicians a great deal of work to secure the few that remained. Financially it no longer made sense to continue maintaining them and I was involved in the decommissioning of several hundred. It was a day of celebration.)

The payphones, much like the rotary phones relied on tones to indicate signaling. But the tones payphones used were quite different. The payphones waited for the noises of coins being deposited before opening up a subscriber circuit. Each coin made a different sound, so the payphone would know exactly how much change had been deposited. So a red box is nothing more than a device with recorded sounds of coins being dropped into a payphone. Often times, a red box was a simple tape recorder.

Another way phreakers found to manipulate payphones was the Green Box. A green box worked in reverse of the red box. Whereas the red box allowed a phreaker to make an outgoing call on the payphone, a green box allowed it’s user to make a collect call. A collect call however expected to be paid once the call was connected, so it was in the phreakers best interest to call only other phreakers that they knew had such a device. The green box would send the correct tones to the payphone, such as the coin collect tone, to indicate the call was paid for. The phreaker would then send the coin return signal, so that the payphone would release the change into it’s coin slot. Thereby giving the original phreaker money.

A Black Box works a bit differently than the above boxes, as it prevents other callers from being charged when they call you. It does this by tricking the phone company into thinking you never pick up the call, when in actuality you did. It manipulates the voltage on the phone lines, which was an easy way for the phone company to recognize when a subscriber line was in use and knew to start charging for the call. By keeping the voltage low, the phone company thinks your line just keeps ringing. However, unsuspecting phreakers soon realized that a phone line that continuously rings is suspicious so they learned to keep their calls short.

A Silver Box is a less known box, as its intention is experimenting with the extra tones the phone companies assigned. Phreakers found that these extra tones could be manipulated into making free calls regardless. (Wang)

The 1980s film ‘Hackers’ demonstrated the majority of these boxes in use, throughout the movie. But you had to be quick to catch some of them as the characters very rarely explained what they were doing. If you pay close attention, you may notice they use a computer program version of these boxes, which would play different tones through the computer speaker.

But now that we are on the subject, let’s explore some of the phreaking techniques that merged with the computer. War Dialers are an old but extremely effective method of finding telephone lines that are connected to modems. A war dialer would run through a list of phone numbers (normally in consecutive order), dialing until they reached a line with a modem attached to it. Most of the time, modem lines were not listed in the phone book, so this would be time consuming and would take a phreaker countless days to attempt to do it by hand. That’s why a war dialer is convenient. Do you need an example of a war dialer in action? The movie ‘War Games’. That’s how our ‘hero’ found the computer controlling the nuclear missiles. It was an unlisted number in a government block of phone numbers, and it was connected to a modem. And that was enough to peek his curiosity.

But even this technique is old; there are security measures in place now to keep phreakers or hackers from playing this same trick. Companies now use call back devices, which verify the originating computer has a right to access that line.

Another phreaking favorite is the voicemail box. Everyone knows what a voicemail box is, an electronic version of the old time answering machine. Where our recorded messages are held on some server at the phone companies. But in this situation, older is actually more secure. I suppose you could consider a voicemail box a version of cloud computing. Since you rent the storage space on the server that someone else owns, and you can access it from anywhere with a simple password. To make this even more vulnerable, voicemail passwords are normally only 4 digits long and restricted to numbers, since a caller must be able to type in the password from a phone keypad. (You should know at this point that length and complexity of a password means higher security, so security professionals will cringe at the vulnerabilities a voicemail box entails.) Unlike the answering machine, which is kept only in one place and the recordings are held on cassette tapes or an internal hard drive that can only be accessed physically, a voicemail box is just another computer, and with open access so all the subscribers can access it when they please. Or when a phreaker wants to pretend to be the subscriber.

Since I’ve already given away the weak link in this scenario, you may have already guessed what a phreaker may use to break into a voicemail box, the password. Either by randomly trying combinations or by using a voicemail password cracking program. And since we’ve already discussed that the length and variations are limited, this means that breaking into a voicemail system takes less time. Once a phreaker is in a particular voicemail user’s box, they can either manipulate that users messages, delete them, change the password, and cause general annoyances. Or the phreaker can attempt to access the voicemail system itself. Since a voicemail box is a sophisticated call forwarding feature, phreakers can change where the calls are forwarded and once again find a way of making long distance calls for free.

These were just a handful of ways that phreakers could manipulate the phone systems, but as you can see, they have plenty of options with these I’ve mentioned. Since telecommunications has grown, there are even more options available today, but I won’t go into that here.


The Most Famous Phreakers

There are plenty of phreaking urban legends, most tell a tale of calling President Nixon or the Israeli army or the Vatican. Few of these stories have been verified but all of the legends seem to have been repeated, per each story teller, and has become an act of initiation. I suppose we will never know for sure, but it does give insight into the culture and how far they were willing to go. Or try to go. (Wang)

Some of the most famous phreakers in history are not necessarily known for just their phone phreaking escapades. No, these phreakers were also very well known hackers, and the majority of their work has been portrayed as acts of hacking. Now, I’ve pointed this out to explain the confusion and the meshing of terms, which the general public has accepted. Even though the two terms should be distinctly different in your mind now, phreaking verses hacking, it normally is mingled into the same bowl. Even law enforcement has difficulty keeping the terms separate.

After reading Ron Rosenbaum’s article of Esquire “Secrets of the Little Blue Box” in 1971, several would-be phone phreakers were inspired to try it. The article interviewed John Draper, aka Captain Crunch and the discovery of the blue box. (Wikipedia) At the time AT&T’s phone systems were controlled by tones and a group of phone phreakers , specifically Josef Carl Engrassia, Jr. aka Joybubbles discovered that he could emulate the ‘perfect pitch’ of 2600 Hertz naturally, thereby entering the phone systems simply by whistling into the receiver. For those who could not recreate the necessary tones, they could use a toy whistle found in the Capt Crunch cereal boxes or by creating a blue box. (Wikipedia) Some famous phone phreakers are also computer pioneers, such as Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs. The two friends did not attempt to hide their phreaking attempts while at Berkley. Wozniak’s blue box is on display at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. The two explained their phreaking attempts as comical and they lost interest after a few attempts. (I, Steve; I, Woz) Although they attempted phone phreaking, their interest was always in the hardware and software of computers, which is where they both thrived.

John Draper and those like him stumbled upon phone phreaking. Their original interest, like so many other hackers, started in ham radios. This is such a common interest that it can be considered a ‘gateway drug’ to hacking. Draper found Denny Teresi, a disc jockey, during a pirate radio broadcast. Teresi also used social engineering to obtain phone system manuals, which allowed the two into trade secrets. (Wikipedia)

Another famous former phone phreaker/hacker turned security consultant, is Kevin Mitnick. He manipulated the Pacific Bell computer systems by using stolen manuals, in which he heavily relied on his social engineering skills to obtain. (The Art of Deception)

There were entire groups and clubs dedicated to creating phone boxes or honing their skills, such as the Legion of Doom. (Wikipedia) LOD, like their brethren computer clubs, published journals and instruction manuals about their findings. Not to be confused with Masters of Deception (MOD), who was a New York based hacking group who manipulated telephone companies. (Masters of Deception: The Gang That Ruled Cyberspace) MOD members were much more vocal and aggressive with their exploits and shared information freely among their members but felt outsiders were not privy to this information, unlike previous hacking groups, who held no restriction on education and felt everyone had a right to learn. MOD felt that the information they found could not be trusted with just anyone, but only responsible individuals and often times withheld their findings until members earned the trust and respect of their fellow members. This could be our first historic glimpse into a mindset of secret hacker brotherhood and information control, that would be evolve into the Anonymous group we know of today. Phone phreakers and hackers have always felt strongly about how information should be distributed and who should be allowed the power of said information, even though where the line should be drawn depends on each group or individual, there is always that strong opinion that it does exist.

So the progression of phreaking to hacking took a relatively similar path, emulating history itself.


Phreakers Impact on Modern Telecommunications

From the start, telecommunications companies had to be on their toes to keep up with what phreakers were throwing at them. And they were not always successful at staying afloat. In fact they were often times embarrassed by the amount of phreakers and hackers who broke into their systems.

I used several movie references to demonstrate examples throughout this paper. Have you noticed a theme? In each movie the hacker is portrayed as an evil villain, a naive but curious child, or malicious. But they each have something in common, they are portrayed as dangerous and their seemingly innocent actions have a huge impact on those around them. Phone phreaks and hackers have been portrayed as bad guys since their discovery but I hope I’ve pointed out that not all have evil intent. The majority of the time, its idle curiosity, the exploration of technology and testing the limits of how much we can do with these systems. That’s the nature that the hacker culture wants to portray but it doesn’t get the best publicity, does it.

Some of our most innovative people started their careers as hackers; an example would be Steve Jobs. It’s become second nature for any tech innovator to have dabbled in hacking at some point in their youth. But we as a society tend to forgive this as long as their creations benefit society or the marketplace. If they promote jobs and industry, we give it a shake of the head and look the other way.

But the name of the game has been changing over the course of the last decade. Namely, telecommunications is not limited to land lines anymore. In fact, land lines have become a business necessity but are nearly obsolete for the residential side. Cell phones, smart phones, and mobile devices have freed the majority of the average user from their homes, allowing them freedom of movement. But this new technology has had its toll on the phone companies.

Even landlines have had an upgrade, as copper lines are being replaced by fiber optic cables across the United States. The technology is intriguing as optical fiber send data across pulses of light encased in glass. And in technology tradition, the cabling has become smaller but sends an enormous amount of data at a faster rate. Copper, while efficient, has its limitations. Such as data loss, speed issues, and thanks to junk yard scavenging, is prone to theft and vandalism. And as a society, we expect everything to get faster and smaller. Just like in our mobile devices. (Wikipedia)

Companies such as Verizon and AT&T are the top cellular phone providers, supplying the majority of cell towers in the United States. Sure, we have other subsidiaries such as Cingular, T-Mobile, and Sprint, but few people realize that these are all owned by either Verizon or AT&T. We have a large monopoly right now that affects traditional phone companies that did not enter the cellular craze. It’s also morphed where the risks are.

Cell phone and radio phreaking have slowly cropped up over the past few years, as users have found ways of supplying free (and illegal) cell phone service. Or by taking advantage of an inert flaw in the cell phone industry by rerouting how customers are billed. (Cell Phone Phreaking) Or by intercepting phone calls via homemade radio stations and an open source PBX. (Cell Phone Spying)

But the manipulation does not stop there, with the physical cell phones being broken into and cell towers being compromised, many cellular companies are limiting the cell tower use or totally shutting them off. As of January 2013, the United States made it illegal to unlock any new Mobile device under the DMCA Copyright Act. (

But let’s go back, traditional phone companies are now focused on businesses for telephone services, but they have also have taken advantage of another essential title; Internet Service Provider. Internet providing has virtually stayed the same, although we have faster ways of providing higher speeds, it still relies on cables. Or does it?

Over the past several years, there has been an uproar over the United States government attempting to regulate how we use the world wide web, with bills and proposed laws such as SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and CISPA (Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act). (Wikipedia) Citizens feel that these laws are meant to protect businesses with vague copyright protection, rather than protecting children or every day users from malicious acts done via the computer. There has been backlash as government would be forcing ISPs to throttle, monitor, or hand out personal information of its users, based on these bills and citizens are not happy about it. They have equated their internet use being regulated to one step closer to Big Brother. Telecommunications has become complicated. It’s no longer just a company supplying a faster way to get messages across, it supports a wide range of options that we take for granted. What school doesn’t use the internet to support their education curriculum? What business doesn’t have a website with online shopping? Very few. We’ve evolved to a digital society. So when these proposed changes come up, people take it more personally, since so much of their normal lives depend on it every day.

One reaction to the business limitations, the FCC regulations, and laws surrounding how the internet is handled is Project Meshnet, in which everyday people have started creating a network of wireless and wired physical connections through their own equipment, in a large Peer-to-Peer connection, to share the network among themselves. In essence, creating their own internet. (Project Meshnet)

Another project in the works as of 2012, was the Server Drone concept. Where one widely known Bit Torrent website decided to test its ability by creating unmanned drones that house servers. Thereby, in theory, bypassing local and international laws due to technicality. Since the drones were not on soil and were being kept in international air space, they were out of any local jurisdiction. This theory has not been officially tested, but the concept is out there. (

We’ve evolved past our landlines; wireless is the new kid on the block. And most recently, cloud computing. This concept of ‘signals in the sky’, without restriction of their movement is appealing to many. But is complicated from a Security point of view. Regardless, it is the direction we are headed. And it’s the direction that telecommunication is following.



In conclusion, I’d like to point out that just because phone systems have changed over time, and phreaking has lost overall interest, that doesn’t mean it’s extinct. In fact, with VoIP systems becoming the norm, phreaking has just taken on a new direction. Now that computer systems control all the aspects of a phone switch, there are a number of ways a phreaker can manipulate the phone systems via their computer terminal. Cell phone hacking has also caught the eye of the hacking community, as they’ve discovered ways of manipulating the cell phone devices, and towers. Smart phones are a huge security risk since they hold a person’s entire life history and personal data nowadays. The majority of the population does not realize that they even need virus and security software for their smart phones.

In addition, phone companies and ISP providers should not be categorized as slow to update their security methods, as covered; many times it’s the red tape that holds up the process. Many times the laws that are meant to protect and serve tend to slow the process to a snail’s pace and hinder their effectiveness. So before you bash your ISP for some problem, try to keep that in mind.

So with having said that, I don’t think that phreaking has died out, only morphed into something else. Much like the essence of technology. With every year brings something new to the floor and every year we thrive to modify and explore it. I don’t necessarily think this basic curiosity is a fault, but forces us to expand. Without someone pushing us to stay steady, we tend to relax and become lazy. Many useful tools can be used in malicious ways, but that does not necessarily mean that the tool itself is malicious. I think we need to remember that distinction. Many people use phreaking and hacking to commit malicious acts but to generalize an entire group as bad or good is too simplistic. There are far too many gray areas for a standard yes or no. Each case is different. This is why in every tech class; there is always a discussion on ethics. It’s never really very far behind the topic of technology. In closing, the essence of phone phreaking, the exploration of technology and finding the limits of our own imagination had initial good intentions. But discovered several bumps on the way. I don’t think this should discourage or frighten people. It just is, it’s a part of the telecommunications industry and hacking community and there’s no indication that it will stop anytime soon. It will only evolve and with it security measures must strive to evolve too.

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