In the early 90’s, when I was moving in the world of computer bulletin board systems (BBS), it ultimately ended in my interest in phreaking. It started out reading t-files, moved into wardialing, and a few years later would result in PBX, voice mail, and switch hacking. While I got a late start in the phreaking world, it involved a world of reading including years of historical activity related to the phone system. Blue boxes were all but a thing of the past. Rumors of a switch or two still allowing you to seize a trunk floated around, but the time and effort of building a box based on rumor wasn’t so appealing, especially after some thirty years of it being the primary tool of the trade.
Red boxes still worked and were fun. Like the phreaks before me and my friends, we didn’t have many people to call, but it was fun using them. Something about that spoofed quarter signal, dee-dee-dee-dee-dee in rapid succession. From there it was the world of voice mail hacking. At first, just to see what the system were about. That quickly morphed into trying to find out which ones allowed outdial, putting me on the eternal hunt for diverters. At some point, enough information emerged about switches, and after a chance lesson from a veteran, a few of us learned the absolute basics of the 1AESS switch. Within a year or two, the Internet was taking a hold of our minds. Mind you, this was when DNS was still largely controlled via your own HOSTS.TXT file, before BIND was prevalent.
I offer this history because it heavily influences this review, and my enjoyment of a book.
Exploding the Phone gives a fairly comprehensive history of the origins of phreaking (phone system hacking). Written by Phil Lapsley, foreword by Steve Wozniak, the book was published earlier this year.
The book “Exploding the Phone” opens with a curious story of a classified advertisement in the Harvard Crimson student newspaper:
WANTED HARVARD MIT Fine Arts no. 13 notebook. (121 pages) & 40 page reply K.K. & C.R. plus 2,800; batter; m.f. El presidente no esta aqui asora, que lastima. B. David Box 11595 St. Louis, MO 63105.
This story is a launching point into the curious world of the early phone hackers, known as “phone freaks” that later became “phone phreaks”. After a brief history of the creation of the phone system, Lapsley takes us through the early world of blue boxing. By sharing the stories of several early phreaks that independently discovered the 2600hz signal and how it could give them free calls and the ability to explore the phone system, we see that an entire generation of what is now known as ‘hackers’ were in it for the love of system, nothing more. Because nothing can be that pure, we also learn of bookies in the 60’s that used phreak-made blue boxes for profit, by evading long distance bills for their numerous calls. Along with the phreaks are the stories of the phone company security and law enforcement that began to investigate them.
We get detailed stories of blind phreaks like Josef Engressia (aka The Whistler), Bill Acker, and Rick Plath. Instead of rumors and lore, Lapsley took extensive time not only researching them, but speaking with them when possible. The stories continue with the phone company struggling to figure out this new wave of people using the system in ways not intended. The reader enjoys some of the classic pranks pulled by phreaks, as they routed their calls all over the world, even to the Vatican. The history lesson continues with the tale of John Draper, aka Captain Crunch, who did not discover the cereal-box whistle blew the 2600hz tone (he was told that by phreaks that figured it out years before). As with all hacker culture, the drama of snitching and trying to evade serious punishment enters the picture. The book wraps up with more recognizable names like Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, and their founding of Apple based on selling blue boxes.
To anyone remotely interested in phreaking, or phone systems in general, I highly recommend this book. The author has done a wonderful job outlining the past through colorful stories, new details, and a great sense of what the culture was like.