History of Hacking 2: Insight into Phone Phreaking

This part of John Draper’s presentation is about the various methods of phone phreaking as one of the early manifestations of hacking into systems.

Phone Phreaking 101

Early phone phreaks in action

Early phone phreaks in action

Who is a phone phreak? A phone phreak is a person, usually blind, because the only things that are in their lives are audio and what they can hear. They’ve got exceptionally good hearing. By hearing the clicks and the whistles, and the pops, and all the stuff in the background they can detect what we can’t do.

And that’s why they can do what they can do. They were able to dial a number, and just by listening they were able to hear the little multi-frequency tones in the background, so faint that the normal person can’t hear it. They figured out that there had to be a way to do that. So, after doing a little bit of social engineering at the telephone company office they would have the ability to figure out what those frequencies were.

And then they associated those frequencies with keys on the organ. And then, to dial a number they simply played two notes at a time in different combinations to make the number. And this is how the cost of phone calls had gone way, way down.

Back in the day, to make a long-distance they used to advertise: “Make a 3-minute call for $1”, in the US. And that was a big thing the AT&T kind of bragged about. So, calls were typically around 30 cents/minute back in the day. And now, you know, a few cents a minute to make a phone call is what you can do. So, you know, this is amazing how the cost of calls has really gone down.

Methods the Old-School Phreakers Used

Now, some of the methods that the old-school phreakers used. One of them is called the mute box. What the mute box does is it takes a 2.7 kilohms resistor in series with the phone line, so that when the phone call comes in, you had a little button; you pushed the button really fast and that would stop the ringing tone but still leave the connection open. But there wouldn’t be enough current to cause the telephone to go off-hook, so therefore the billing equipment wouldn’t trigger.

This allows you to be able to receive phone calls for free to the person that’s calling you. So the person who’s calling you will not get billed for it. Why? Because you’re not picking up the phone. You are basically leaving the phone on-hook. But you’re listening to the audio, because the audio still can go through that 2.7 k resistor to the phone line.

The next thing which is very useful is called loop around numbers. Loop around numbers in the San Jose area always began with 0044 and 0045. If you dial the 0044 side, you get a high-pitch tone. It’s a 1000 Hz tone interrupted every 10 seconds. If somebody else were to call 0045 side, the two of them could get connected together and they could talk. Very useful when you want to kind of mask who your phone number was. In fact, that was how I actually got hold of Denny1. He gave me a loop around number. I called the operator, and she said: “That’s an internal test number, why should you be calling that number?”

He called me back about a month later and explained to me what loop arounds were, and I had to find out more, so I made an arrangement to meet Denny, and that was when I first learned all about how blue boxes worked.

The other thing is demonstrators. Back in the day the telephones were rotary dial. So they had to have a way of demonstrating how the new touch tone system would work. So, what they did was: you dialed a 7-digit number and it would answer with a dial tone, and you then could use your touch tone phone right next to that phone to show how fast you can dial a number; these are called demonstrator lines. Normally, these demonstrator lines are restricted to local calls only.

Yet another thing phone phreaks would use was party lines. There are 2 different kinds of party lines: one of them is if you call a busy number, like a radio station – you can actually talk between the busy beeps, and so you can give enough information out to get them to call you or something. It’s not very good to hear that constant beep all the time.

Other phone phreaks figured out that if you opened up the sleeve at an old step office, you could actually have a 10-party conference line. If you can take 10 numbers that aren’t used and you open up the sleeves in the wires, then you can actually make a conference call; usually that took social engineering because you had to call the telephone company switch office, you had to convince the guy that it’s ok and cool to bend the sleeve open to make it work.

Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak with homemade 'blue boxes'

Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak with homemade ‘blue boxes’

Then there are blue boxes. Blue box is a multi-frequency device; it combines different tones; there are 700 Hz, 900 Hz, 1100 Hz, 1500 Hz, and 1700 Hz. They are odd frequencies, because that way they won’t interfere with each other. It’s quite a bit different than touch tones.

Then there are red boxes. Red boxes are the boxes used for making free calls from payphones. All it does is just emulate the sound that operator hears, with money going into the phone. They have the 3-coin payphones: you put in a nickel and it goes ‘ding’; you put in a dime and it goes ‘ding-ding’; you put in a quarter and it goes ‘gong’. And that’s what the operator hears, and that’s where she knows that you are putting money in the phone.

There’s actually a demonstration number in Vancouver, Canada; it’s a recording, you dial 604-11-21 and it goes: “five cents – ding, ten cents – ding-ding, quarter – gong”. And it just repeats it over and over again, it’s like an operator training tape. And these are some of the really cool things that we found kind of exploring the system. It wasn’t the idea of making free calls, it was the idea of hacking into the system, and that’s what made it really exciting.

1Denny Teresi – is a blind former phone phreak and radio disk jockey, most famous for being the person who introduced John Draper to the field.

Read previous: History of Hacking: John “Captain Crunch” Draper’s Perspective
Read next: History of Hacking 3: The Dawn of Computer Hacking

Like This Article? Let Others Know!
Related Articles:

One comment

  1. This is about Joe Engressia (later renamed “Joybubbles”).

    Besides being brilliant and the original phone phreak, he was a really good guy. I knew him in the 1970s when he lived in Memphis, TN.

    He was also friends with John “Captain Crunch” Draper, but Joe could whistle perfect pitch and actually make phone switches do his bidding.


Leave a comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comment via Facebook: