Leet Tech: A look back at Phreaking

by Gary Chapman

gchapman@lc.edu

 

Before hacking became a thing in the mainstream, hacking was a thing that was sometimes just a group of hobbyists who are trying to access certain stuff, like changing the grades in a school system. One of the more famous things to hack is the phone system, and that is where phreaking comes in.

The name phreaking is a portmanteau of phone hacking, and it originates partially by people trying to find ways to not get charged for long-distance dialing, or sometimes, like Youtuber David Murray says, with the prices between major metro areas. He relates the fact that the price between the Dallas area and the nearby Fort Worth area was 85 cents a minute, while calling to New York or Los Angeles was 11 cents a minute. 

Now, let us discuss some of the methods used. These are illegal, but the methods used do not work anymore, so it does not really matter. These methods are referred to as boxes because you would have a physical box.

Blue Box: This box was used to receive free long-distance calling. What you would do is call the exchange number or an 800 number and then hold the box/tape/computer speaker to the headset, and it will emit a 2600 Hz tone, which would cause you to go to the trunk lines which allows you to call a long-distance number. This was partially discovered by Joe Engressia/Joybubbles, who was blind and could whistle a 2600 Hz tone, and John Draper/Capt. Crunch, who used a toy whistle that came with Captain Crunch Cereal to make the tone. Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs got their start making Blue Boxes for people.

Black Box: A device that allows the person calling to not get charged for the call.

Red Box: A device that would emit the coin tones for a payphone, so you can get free calls. Murray noted that there was a limit that can be put in. The phone company would call the cops if there were over 200 bucks in quarters put in, as the payphone could not have over $200.

Silver Box:  Adds the ABCD buttons to your phone system that are used for Military use.

War Dialing:   A method that people would use to find computers in their area. They would have their computer dial all the numbers in the selected area and would mark the ones that find a computer. A famous depiction of this is in the 1983 movie “WarGames”. https://youtu.be/U2_h-EFlztY  A similar system was used for finding calling card numbers. 

Blotto Box: An urban legend that spread among phreaking circles. This mythical box would work by hooking a Tesla coil to the phone, and this would theoretically paralyze the phone system and make everyone’s phone ring or electrocute those who pick up. This would not work in practice, as the copper phone wires would melt due to the high current.

After the computer revolution, programs such as “Tele-Clone” by Sgt. Pepper were released for computers like the Commodore 64. The last multi-frequency system was discontinued in Minnesota in 2006, marking the end of phreakable phone systems.

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