Their only crime was curiosity: what today's hackers owe phone phreaks

phil lapsley lede

Once upon a time, in the days before the ubiquitous and invisible internet, there was only one network. It was made of long-distance lines — actual wires — and it was ruled by an absolute monarch, Ma Bell. Most people traveled the network along conventional channels. But there were also explorers, a small group of curious misfits eager to map the darkest, most obscure corners of this evolving global net. Harvard students, blind teenagers, budding engineers — eventually they came together and formed a subculture. They became “phone phreaks.”

That’s the story Phil Lapsley picks up in Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws Who Hacked Ma Bell. He spent years researching the early days of phone phreakdom, from its beginnings as the solitary explorations of a curious few to its heyday as a countercultural movement — and as a nightmare for AT&T. By phone, naturally, he discussed the hidden history of phone phreaking, and why, despite decades of technological advancement, it’s a story that remains relevant today.

"You get that little dopamine kick when you solve something."

Even for people with some understanding of phone phreak culture, who probably know about "Secrets of the Little Blue Box" and Jobs and Woz selling blue boxes (electronic devices for manipulating the phone system and making free calls) throughout California, much of Exploding the Phone really is forgotten history. You go back not to the '60s or '70s, but to the 1950s, when individual phreakers first began exploring the phone system. What drew you to this early history?

A couple things. One is, you know, I'm a hacker type. I've gone off and done business consulting, but first and foremost I'm an engineer. Hackers, phone phreaks, engineers, they all like puzzles — they like solving problems. You get that little dopamine kick when you solve something. And so for me, I really wanted to understand "Where did this stuff come from?" Someone had to have been the first phone phreak, somebody had to have been the guy who thought, "Hey, I've got an idea — let's play with this as opposed to making a phone call."

It actually started in 2005. I was in a hotel room on a consulting assignment one evening, and I happened to start reading the phone phreaking article on Wikipedia. I had learned about phone phreaking when I was a kid, so as I read I thought, "You know, half of this stuff is wrong." So it became like solving a puzzle. What made these people do it, and how did they discover it? What initially started as a hobby of just trying to track this stuff down slowly turned into this obsession. I'm just kind of an obsessive guy. And then eventually it became a book project.

Of course, I went back to 1955 and I've got Davy Crockett [a pseudonym] in the book, but who knows if he was the first phone phreak? Somebody might have been 5 years ahead of him, that I just never found. So it'll be interesting to see if the book gets out there and gets some publicity, if I start getting emails like "Oh, my Uncle Joe was doing this stuff."

Another thing is that we have kind of a history gene in my family. One of my brothers is a Ph.D historian, and I've always been interested in history. I guess I've always felt like rarely are things more interesting than at the very beginning. So whether it's like a startup company, or like if you're looking at like the history of the microprocessor, or something like that — whatever you're looking at, it always seems to me to be more interesting in those first, early days than later. I'm sort of naturally attracted to beginnings of things.

"Rarely are things more interesting than at the very beginning."

Just how clever and obsessive these people were. You look at these kids, like Charlie Pyne, Ed Ross, and Tony Lauck — the Harvard kids — in 1962. Joybubbles, whoever — any of these early guys. First off, they didn't really have a network of people that they were trading information with, they were just doing it on their own. Number two, this is of course way before the internet, so it's hard to come by any information, so a lot of this stuff they just puzzle out on their own. They'd listen to the sounds on the network, and they'd be obsessed by it, and they'd work on it, and they'd figure it out.

In contrast, today we have like newsletters like 2600, or before 2600 there was TAP. The phone phreaks in the late 1970s had all this information at their fingertips and yet it was still this little bit of a mystery, whereas these kids in the early 1960s, they didn't have anything to work with. In 1962 they’d understood the system so thoroughly that even 10 years later, there were a lot of people — telephone experts — who didn’t understand what they did. I had no idea that anybody had done that, succeeded to that degree.

One of the most entertaining aspects of the book is reading about solitary explorers having their own private "aha!" moments; then eventually they all get come together. They form a real culture.

Absolutely, that's absolutely right. And Bill Acker said it so clearly: "I'm happy enough to work on this stuff in isolation, but my god, to think that there were actually other people like me who were interested in the same thing was just fantastic."

Photo credit: Margaretta K. Mitchell

Cover of 2600, Autumn 2012 ©2600 Enterprises, Inc.

Project Greenstar, the secretive technology devised by AT&T to wiretap literally millions of its customers in order to root out fraud, sounds like something, unfortunately, we'd hear about happening today. Yet Greenstar began in 1962, remaining secret even as criminal prosecutions were based on data it provided. How difficult was it for you to find information about it?

It's a funny thing: that turned out actually be really easy to do. I happened to interview Amos Joel, who was the head of switching at Bell Laboratories, in 2006, and just in passing he said "Oh, yeah, you should really check out this Project Greenstar thing. You want to talk to Ken Hopper and Bill Caming.” Ken Hopper was one of the Bell Labs security people, and Bill Caming was AT&T's attorney for privacy and fraud matters.

When I talked to them, they were remarkably open about it, for two reasons. First, it wasn't a secret anymore: this had all come out in 1975 during these Congressional hearings. They weren't revealing anything that hasn't already been public for over 30 years.

Secondly, as far as they were concerned they were never doing anything wrong. Bill Caming had sat down and thought hard about this and had come to the conclusion that what AT&T was doing was perfectly legal. They kept it so secret before not because they were afraid — they simply realized that if we tell people, they're either going to find a way to work around our system or we're not going to get meaningful statistics anymore. From the the beginning they wanted to understand the scope of the problem. Is this something that it's worth spending a billion dollars to fix the network? Or are there only 20 people in the world who know how to do that, and there's not doing it very much so it's overkill.

"If you're a hacker type pissed at, say, Comcast for whatever reason, you’re not angry at 'the internet.'"

It's fascinating how the countercultural embraced phone phreaking as a way to rip off Ma Bell. People really did argue for blueboxing as a political act, which by depriving the government of taxes paid on phone service, undermined in some small way the military action in Vietnam. It has some similarities with Anonymous today; the difference, it seems, is that today the network is a means to an end — whether that's denial of service attacks or doxxing — whereas 40 years ago, AT&T itself was considered the enemy, almost another branch of the government. The network itself was an enemy.

That's a really interesting point, and not one I’d thought about until just now. With Anonymous today, people will do, say, distributed denial of service attacks, but they're not trying to shut down the internet. They're trying to use the internet to harm whoever their intended victim is: "We're going to shut down this company," or "We're going to take Estonia off the net." I think part of that, I think there are a couple of reasons for that. One is that the internet today is so pervasive — you can't really imagine life without it. It's just come to infuse every part of our existence today.

The other thing is that no one company or person owns the internet, as opposed to AT&T and its network monopoly. If you're a hacker type pissed at, say, Comcast for whatever reason, you’re not angry at "the internet.” I think AT&T made a convenient target as the monopoly provider. A lot of people associated AT&T with poor service and high rates and just being kind of a pain to deal with. Although it bears noting that almost anybody from that era would tell you we had the best phone service in the world at that time. It might have been an expensive monopoly, but it was a good expensive monopoly.

Toward the end of the book, you take up the broader question of what we should do with those souls whose curiosity carries them across certain legal or ethical boundaries. You write, "In the end the phone phreaks taught us that there is a societal benefit to tolerating, perhaps even nurturing (in the words of Apple) the crazy ones — the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes." Jobs and Wozniak are the obvious examples; as you point out, if they'd been arrested for blueboxing, there might be no Apple today. And less well-known characters, such as John Draper, had their lives severely impacted by run-ins with the law. Looking around today, at the Aaron Swartz case among others, it's hard to not wonder whether we really have learned to tolerate curious people who, say, show up certain widely-held preconceptions about the world. Was that something that was on your mind as you were writing?

Obviously the Aaron Swartz fiasco had not occurred when I was writing the book, that sort of thing was on my mind. It took me a while to figure it out and articulate, in the book I suggest that the phone phreaks introduced us to what I call a new class of criminal, which is the curious. I don't believe that curiosity in and of itself should be a crime. Stealing something from your house is a crime. Learning how to pick locks isn't a crime, or in my opinion shouldn't be. Just because your curiosity takes you some place, that in and of itself shouldn't be a crime.

Photo credit: Margaretta K. Mitchell

"I don't believe that curiosity in and of itself should be a crime."

That said, your curiosity can lead you to do something that's illegal. I read Tim Wu’s New Yorker post, “How the Legal System Failed Aaron Swartz — And Us,' in which he talks about the idea of proportionality — basically this idea of let’s let the punishment fit the crime. That really hit it on the head: the United States has this funny legal system with misdemeanors which are small crimes and felonies which are big crimes. An engineer would call it non-linear: you've got only these two choices, misdemeanors or felonies. Then you look at somebody like John Draper, Captain Crunch. In his life, Draper has exercised a lot of bad judgement — he's been foolish on a number of occasions. But go back to the first time he got in trouble playing with the phone in 1972. He was convicted of a felony for making a 3-minute phone call to Australia, and got fined a thousand dollars for that.

I look at that and think, "Really? How is that proportional, how does that make sense?" And I think there's a proportionality problem with Aaron Swartz as well. OK, this guy was curious and maybe did some stuff that was wrong, but that doesn't mean you need to go after him to put him in jail for 30 years. That seems crazy.

We really haven’t learned to reason very well about these kinds of electronic hijinks or crimes, depending on where you are on the line. People sometimes talk about a distinction: atoms vs. bits, physical things vs. electronic things. We've got a million years of evolution about how to reason about physical things. We don't have that for electronic things. So somebody steals your television set, we kind of understand that and there's a bunch of reasons why we think the way we do about that. Somebody goes and steals a bunch of songs, that baffles us a little bit. And then it baffles us even more when somebody downloads a bunch of academic journal articles in order to make them free, like Aaron was accused of doing. So, I think we're still figuring this stuff out and I think we still have not really learned how to think very well about crimes involving bits. Frankly, I think they scare us a little bit.

It’s something about the nature of these “crimes.” Robbery, even murder - we sort of understand why those things happen, what motivates them. But these “crimes of curiosity,” sort of tweaking systems by which we all normally and unthinkingly function, are somehow more offensive, and provoke an outsized reaction.

I think we're going to have to get better as a society at figuring this stuff out. As I finished the book, I wished I had had some more preservative things to say like, "And here's what we should do about it," I don't know that I have the answer to that, but I do know that I think we have to get better at it.

Photos courtesy Tom Page, Jef Nickerson, Justin Baeder, and Daniel Parks.

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