John Thomas Draper: Setting the Record Straight re: Blue Box

The tl;dr cliffnotes: John Draper was not invent the Blue Box.


In April of 2015, several years after Phil Lapsley published “Exploding the Phone” giving a detailed history of the early days of phreaking, I wrote a blog largely based on that book to clear up long-standing rumors and mistakes in a variety of publications. John Draper, despite reputation, had not been the first to discover the whistle in Cap’n Crunch cereal boxes in the late 1960s. Recently, an article by Kevin Collier stated that Draper “invented the ‘Little Blue Box,’ an electronic device to better imitate the signal. In 1971, Draper showed his design to two fans, Jobs and Wozniak, who, with Draper’s blessing, began selling an improved version.

Other articles and publications have varying takes on this, some more neutral and accurate, some even more outlandish. For example, recent articles covering John Draper’s sexual misconduct mention his history and why he is well-known. Ars Technica says that he “helped popularize the ‘Little Blue Box'” and the BBC says he “went on to create a ‘blue box’ that generated other tones“. In the case of Ars Technica, that is certainly accurate historically. In the case of BBC, the wording may be taken to some that he created it, as in he was the first to do so. Another example of wording that implies Draper was the first can be seen in a Computer World article from 2011, that says he “then built the phone phreaking tool called blue box that made free calls by making phone calls appear to be toll-free 800-number calls.” Interesting, to me at least, Wikipedia gives a general history of the device, but does not definitively say who invented it.

Perhaps worse, books about computer crime and security get it wrong, and worse than wrong. In “Cybercrime: Investigating High-Technology Computer Crime” by Robert Moore, he clearly states the blue box was “invented by John Draper“. Perhaps the worst example I have seen is in the book “Mobile Malware Attacks and Defense” by Ken Dunham in which he attributes not only the blue box to Draper, but also all of “telephone hacking” when he built it.

Like my blog two years ago, I turn back to ‘Exploding the Phone‘ by Phil Lapsley, a book that I cannot speak highly enough about. Through his extensive and exhaustive research, along with years of interviews, his history of phreaking is comprehensive and fascinating. By using a few key bits from the book, we can quickly see the real history and origin of the blue box. It also makes it crystal clear that John Draper did not invent the blue box. Like the whistle, he did it years later after friends told or showed him the basics.

From page 51, the start of a chapter titled “Blue Box”, it tells the story of a then 18-year-old named Ralph Barclay who read the November 1960 Bell System Technical Journal which contained an article titled “Signaling Systems for Control of Telephone Switching”. After reading the article, Barclay figured out that it had all of the information required to avoid using a pay phone to make a call, and that it could be done “directly”. By page 56, Lapsley describes how Barclay build his first box over a weekend, in an “unpainted metal enclosure about four inches on a side and perhaps two inches deep.” Barclay realized fairly quickly that he needed the box to do more, and as described on page 57, he built a new box because he “needed multifrequency“. “His new device was housed in a metal box, twelve by seven by three inches, that happened to be painted a lovely shade of blue. Barclay did not know it at the time, but the color of his device’s enclosure would eventually become synonymous with the device itself. The blue box had just been born.” This was in 1960 or 1961 and represents the origin of the blue box.

On page 87, Lapsley tells the story of Louis MacKenzie who also spotted the vulnerability based on the 1960 Bell Systems article. MacKenzie went to AT&T and offered to tell them how to fix the ‘blue box’ vulnerability, for a price. When AT&T declined, “MacKenzie’s attorney appeared on the CBS evening news, waving around a blue box and talking about the giant flaw in the telephone system.” By that point, advertisements for blue boxes could be found in some magazines, including the January 1964 issue of Popular Electronics. Thanks to AmericanRadioHistory.com, old issues of Popular Electronics are available including the January 1964 issue! On page 115, we can see the advertisement:

Further along in the history of phreaking, Lapsley covers John Draper’s story related to the blue box. On page 151 it sets the time frame: “Now it was 1969 and he was John Thomas Draper, a twenty-six-year-old civilian.” Page 154 tells the story of when Draper was asked by friends who had already been ‘blue boxing’ by using an electronic organ, to build them a box.

Teresi and Fettgather wanted to know if Draper could build them a multifrequency generator – an MFer, a blue box, a portable electronic gadget that would produce the same paris of tones they were making with Fettgather’s electronic organ. Draper said he could.

He returned home in a state of shock. “I had to build a blue box,” Draper recalls. And that night he did. It was a crude first effort that was difficult to use. It had seven switches: one for 2,600 Hz and six to generate the tones that made up multifrequency digits.

Draper’s first blue box was built in 1969, around eight years after Barclay had built his first unpainted ‘blue box’, and his second box that was actually “a lovely shade of blue“, giving the phreaking tool its iconic name.

Bonus:

To further set the record straight, Lapsley tells the story (p220 – 221) of Steve Wozniak, who “had his [blue box] design worked out” and “was particularly proud of a clever trick he used to keep the power consumption down so the battery would last longer” in 1972. After Wozniak had built his own blue box and refined it, he and Jobs then met John Draper for the first time. While the three traded “blue boxing techniques and circuit designs”, Draper did not show them how to do it, did not show them their first box, or introduce them to the concept.

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John Thomas Draper: Setting the Record Straight re: Cap’n Crunch Whistle

The tl;dr cliffnotes: John Draper was not the first to discover that a Cap’n Crunch whistle could be used for phreaking.


It is almost a ‘fact’ that John Draper, also known as Captain Crunch, discovered that a toy whistle in a box of cereal could be used to make free phone calls. I say ‘almost’ a fact, because so many people believe it, and so many people have written about it as if it were fact. Even recently, a magazine known for intelligent geeky facts parroted this falsehood:

Not long after Engressia shared this information with the other phreakers, John Draper discovered that a toy boatswain’s whistle that was included in boxes of Cap’n Crunch cereal in the late 1960s could blow a perfect 2600Hz tone.

Even going back to 1983, a book titled “Fighting Computer Crime” by Donn B. Parker carried the myth:

A young man just entering the U.S. Air Force to serve as a radio technician was fascinated with telephony and took courses on the subject at college and discovered the whistle that catapulted him to crime, infamy, and misfortune.

Google around for tales of Draper and the whistle will find a variety of sites that say he discovered it. These include the Snopes message board, a telephone tribute site, high school papers, and other archival sites. And this isn’t limited to more obscure sites, this ‘fact’ is still repeated by mainstream media articles.

While some in the industry have had doubts or heard tale that Draper did not discover the whistle’s significant tone, it wasn’t until last year that we finally got a definitive answer and story. Phil Lapsley wrote a book titled “Exploding the Phone” that gives an exhaustive history of phone phreaking and is a must read for anyone interested in the topic. Lapsley’s research put him in touch with many players of the time, and the real story emerged:

Page 155: Several years earlier a Los Angeles phone phreak named Sid Bernay had discovered you could generate a nice, clean 2,600 Hz tone simply by covering one of the holes in the plastic toy bosun whistle that was given away as a prize in boxes of Cap’n Crunch cereal. Armed with their Cap’n Crunch whistles Fettgather and Teresi and friends would cluster around pay phones at the airport and go nuts. [..] With Draper in the club the whistle trips expanded.

Page 166: (late summer of 1970) It was on one of those conference calls that John Draper discovered a new identity for himself. [..] One day Draper and Engressia were talking about using a Cap’n Crunch whistle to make their beloved 2,600 Hz tone, Engressia recalls, when Draper suddenly said, “You know, I think I’ll just call myself Captain Crunch. That’d be a good name.” Engressia immediately liked it. “It just fit him somehow,” he remembers. “It was just a good name for him. We called him ‘Captain’ a lot.” Captain Crunch was born.

Given that most of Draper’s modern reputation is based on his ‘discovery’ of the whistle, something he has done nothing to dispel or come clean about, I feel it is important to help set the record straight. While he may be an iconic figure in lore, even if undeserved, it is important to better understand what kind of person he was during this time.

Page 245: And as a rule universally agreed upon within their group, they avoided John Draper and his friends like the plague. “I tell you,” [David] Condon says, “Draper was the kiss of death. He was asking for it, he was looking for trouble.

Page 313: All this did not sit well with Steve Jobs and the other managers at Apple, who thought the Charley Board product was a bit too risky and, besides, they disliked Draper to begin with.

In addition to being disliked, Draper had a growing criminal record that included seven counts of violating 18 USC 1343 (Fraud by Wire, when he used a blue box to Australia, New York, and other places) in 1972, violating probation later in 1972, arrested in California in 1976, and indicted on three counts of 18 USC 1343 while on probation. To this day, Draper maintains it was a conspiracy:

Page 287: To this day, Draper maintains that he was framed. [..] “Well, it turns out that he had arranged with the FBI to tap that phone,” Draper says. “he told the FBI that I was going to be making a blue box call at that phone at that date and time.” The result was that the FBI now had a blue box call on tape with Draper’s voice on it. [..] You see, the informant that the Los Angeles office of the FBI sent up didn’t arrive in the Bay Area until Tuesday, February 24. The blue box telephone calls that Draper was eventually busted for occurred four days earlier, on Friday, February 20. And on that Friday the Los Angeles informant was still in Los Angeles, enjoying sunny southern California weather or breathing smog or whatever it is that LA phone phreak informants do when they’re off duty.

But this wasn’t the end of his crime. In New Jersey in 1977 he was arrested and charged with possession of a red box, which was later dropped. He was again arrested in 1977, this time in Pennsylvania, which led to him agreeing to a plea deal in 1978 to one count of possessing a device to steal telecom services. He was sentenced to 3 – 6 months in jail with credit for 1 month served. That charge and plea also meant he violated his federal probation for earlier crimes, sending him back to California to spend time in prison as well. During all of this time, two psychiatrists observed that Draper “tend[s] to pass himself off as the victim claiming that he has almost no control over all of the troubles that now beset him” and that he had “numerous paranoid delusions of being especially picked out for persecution because of his power and knowledge”. Both psychiatrists agreed that a jail would not be a good place for Draper, leading a judge to sentence him to a furlough program for one year. Finally, in 1987, he was caught forging tickets for the BART system which lead to a plea bargain, resulting in a misdemeanor.

I offer all of this up, courtesy of Exploding the Phone, as a reminder that many people in InfoSec consider him a hero of sorts, and feel that his history was beneficial to the world of phreaking. In reality, it was not. He was just another phreak at the time, did not discover the Cap’n Crunch whistle, was caught during his crimes several times, and then somehow became a telecom legend. To this day, Draper still tries to use his reputation to get handouts from the industry. If you want to support him, just be sure you understand who you are supporting, and why.