January 16, 2013

On March 21st, 2002, a 13-year-old girl name Milly Dowler mysteriously disappeared on her way home from school in Surrey, England. While a massive search team scoured the region, the girl’s family called her cell phone repeatedly, leaving voicemail messages. That her voicemails were being regularly deleted suggested she was still alive, a false hope that would eventually redouble the pain of her family’s loss. Six months later, mushroom pickers in nearby woods discovered her decomposed remains. It was determined that she had been killed shortly after her abduction. The messages weren’t being listened to by Milly, but by phone hackers employed by News Corporation’s newspaper News of the World.

The Dowler case was the revelation that ignited the News Corp. phone hacking scandal. An investigation revealed that, in addition to Dowler’s phone, the hacker employed by News of the World targeted the phones of family members of deceased British soldiers, victims of the 2005 London terrorist attacks, and political officials. The list of targets runs close to 4,000 individuals. The ensuing fallout launched dozens of investigations in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia. News of the World was shuttered after 168 years of operation, and Rebekah Brooks, the paper’s editor during the Dowler affair, resigned, was arrested, and currently awaits trial. The public was outraged. Phone hacking had been elevated to an issue of national significance. British MP Tom Watson told an interviewer, “[This case] moves phone hacking into a new league.”

But if the News Corp. scandal signaled a more vicious incarnation of phone hacking, did it also suggest that phone hacking was at one point less heinous? Phil Lapsley, who’s currently putting the final touches on his definitive account of the practice, says it does. In his forthcoming book, Exploding the Phone, Lapsley outlines the fascinating history of the telephone network, and offers a window into the innocent emergence of phone hacking.

Before the advent of the modern telephone system, Lapsley says, when calls were still transferred by well-dressed women sitting behind switchboards, hacking was more of a con game than a technical skill. Early phone hackers impersonated operators or telephone company switchmen, duping the real operators into connecting free long-distance calls. “If you were the kind of person who would hack something, the telephone network was really the only game in town,” he says.

True phone hacking, commonly referred to as “phreaking,” didn’t take off until AT&T automated its switchboards after World War II. Instead of being transferred by hand, all calls would now be automatically routed by a system that recognized 12 frequency combinations made up of 6 master tones. Each frequency stood for a different number. Although the new system streamlined the network, it also introduced a critical flaw: If you could reproduce the frequencies externally and broadcast them through a phone’s receiver, you could enter the system and travel its breadth gratis.

This Achilles’ heel went largely unnoticed until the late 1950s, when an 8-year-old boy named Joe Engressia Jr. started tinkering with his parents’ phone in Richmond, Virginia. Engressia, who was born blind, noticed that when he made long-distance phone calls, he’d sometimes hear a shrill tone squealing deep inside the system. Gifted with perfect pitch, he whistled the tone back into the receiver. When he matched the frequency, the call dropped. Not sure what to make of it, Engressia did it again. And again. And again, until he made a series of discoveries: first, he could dial phone numbers by triggering the hook on which the receiver normally rests in quick succession. But, most importantly, he realized that if he called a toll-free number, hung up by whistling, and quickly used the hook to dial a new number, he could reroute his phone call to anywhere in the world for free. He literally had the telephone system under his thumb.

By college, Engressia was rigging free phone calls for friends. Word of his skill spread quickly until even the media took note. Alongside newspaper articles, a local news station taped a segment on Engressia. In the clip, he sits stiffly on a floral-print couch in front of a telephone. Like a rabid songbird, he fires off a blistering set of whistles into the receiver, sending his call on a 1,000-mile journey to a town in Illinois and back to a second phone at his side. With the receiver pressed to his ear, he says, “The phone should be ringing about… now.” The phone next to him erupts.

“That turned out to be the nucleation point,” Lapsley says. Engressia may have been the most prominent phreaker, but it turned out he wasn’t alone. Another kid named Bill Acker—also blind—had been fooling around with his parents’ phone in New York. Acker noticed the same sound Engressia had. After his mother read him an article on Engressia, Acker used a tonette whistle—which by chance produced the perfect frequency—to tap the phone system. Meanwhile, Mark Bernay, a high school student in Los Angeles, noticed his phone sounded different after he moved homes. One day he discovered he could make free calls simply by clicking the hook in a particular pattern, and soon enough, Bernay was freely surfing the telephone network, too. John Draper, honorably discharged from military service, discovered that the kids’ whistle offered in boxes of Cap’n Crunch cereal also produced the perfect pitch for phreaking. For that, Draper would forever be known among the hacking community as Captain Crunch.

Throughout the late ’60s a community emerged, with Engressia at its hub. They came out of the woodwork in Washington, Massachusetts, New York, and California. As articles on Engressia proliferated, phreakers who had assumed they were alone in their obsessions discovered likeminded brethren. Phone hacking offered an endless puzzle to solve, an uncharted map with infinite boundaries. It also offered friends and adventure. To explore phones outside of their neighborhoods, phreakers piled into cars and took road trips, driving hundreds of miles to surreptitiously huddle around a pay phone in a dusty gas station. The so-called blue boxes that phreakers started building—electronic devices that replicated frequencies, replacing the original whistles—only made phreakers more conspicuous.

“They were interested in two things,” Lapsley says of phreakers. “The first was really understanding and exploring how the telephone network worked. The second was proving that they could figure this stuff out, like a challenge. The reality is that if you were a phone phreak, you were a pretty lonely person. These guys would get in trouble with the phone company or the FBI and they wouldn’t have anyone to call. They didn’t have many friends.”

The phreakers tapped phones in order to explore the vast branches of the network, learning how to boomerang their calls to distant locales and organizing call-in lines where they could compare notes and share their discoveries—but they also pulled pranks. Mark Bernay says he used to call numbers pretending he was from the phone company. “We have discovered a problem in your neighborhood,” he’d tell them. “All the phones are out or having problems because of your line. We can either send someone out—but it won’t be until 2 a.m.—or I can walk you through the process of fixing it yourself.” When the target agreed to the less egregious option of self-servicing the phone, Bernay would instruct them to open the device and do something innocuous. Then, he says, “I would tell them that in order to condition the phone and get it back to the servers, there were certain necessary motions. The phone had to be waved around the earth and certain frequencies had to be spoken into the microphone. Basically, I would talk people into standing on a chair and waving their phone up and down while clucking like a chicken.”

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