Culture

The Birth of Phone Hacking & How It Set the Stage for the News Corp. Scandal

Culture

The Birth of Phone Hacking & How It Set the Stage for the News Corp. Scandal

+

IN THE SPRING of 1971, Ron Rosenbaum, a 24-year-old writer for Esquire, caught wind of the phreakers. A colleague of his had recently been to San Francisco, where he met a lawyer working with a client who’d been busted for building blue boxes. The client, whose name had been changed in the story to Al Gilbertson, was angry with AT&T. As revenge, he wanted to publicize phreaking, shaming the telephone industry Goliath into admitting that it had been outsmarted by a geeky pack of Davids.

That summer, Rosenbaum, who now writes for Slate, flew out to San Francisco to profile a movement in the making. “It was one of the most interesting, exciting, and intriguing stories I’ve ever worked on. I was really discovering a hidden world,” he says. Crunch in particular caught his attention. “He posed as a comic book superhero, but he actually delivered in the real world. When you’d hear about his exploits, you’d doubt them, but he’d actually back them up.” In one infamous episode, Crunch phreaked a phone booth in Los Angeles to make a call to Tokyo. From Tokyo, he was connected to India, where he was transferred to South Africa. From South Africa, his voice traveled to South America, and then, backtracking slightly, sojourned to London. From London it traveled to New York and from there right back to Los Angeles, to the empty phone booth next to his. He talked to himself around the world, with a 20-second delay. On another occasion, Crunch is rumored to have phreaked President Richard Nixon in the White House. Supposedly, he warned Nixon of a toilet paper shortage in Los Angeles. Angry, the president asked Crunch how he’d gotten the number. When pressed to confirm the story, Crunch demurs.

“They were very excited about their achievements,” Rosenbaum says. “They liked the idea that someone was taking them seriously—treating their world with respect.” Crunch was particularly eager to talk. “He would not only agree to be interviewed, but demand to be interviewed,” he says. One day during the summer of 1971, a uniformed security guard banged on Rosenbaum’s door while he was conducting an interview in his hotel room. “There’s a person who has an urgent message for you,” Rosenbaum remembers the guard saying. It was Crunch. “I know you’re talking to all these other guys, but I’m the one who’s done all these exploits. You need to talk to me.”

Neither the author nor the phreakers could have predicted the impact that Rosenbaum’s article, “Secrets of the Little Blue Box,” would have when it was published in the October 1971 issue of Esquire. According to Lapsley, the article exploded the practice into the mainstream. It had been “a little gentlemen’s hobby of a few dozen or hundred people worldwide. Suddenly, thousands of people wanted to partake.”

For Crunch, the magazine feature was a personal disaster. It portrayed him as an ego-driven genius with limitless power over the network—at one point in the story he boasts of being able to shut down the entire U.S. phone system. The piece attracted so much attention that it launched a grand jury investigation into phreaking. Crunch was briefly locked up for toll fraud charges and ordered to serve five years of probation. “I told Rosenbaum that he should not publish [the article]. I said, I’m almost certain that I’m going to get thrown in jail,” Crunch says. Rosenbaum remembers Crunch’s reaction differently. After the article hit newsstands, Rosenbaum met with Crunch at a McDonald’s in San Jose, California. “Crunch was totally delighted with the article and the prominence it gave him. It was a celebration.”

LIKE A CONTAGION, phreaking spread quickly, adapting and evolving away from its innocuous roots. By the mid-’70s, thousands of people across the country were phreaking the system. One of phreaking’s most salient sea changes was how political it became. Frustrated by his imprisonment, Crunch reached out to the Black Panthers and the Yippies, offering them instructions on how to phreak. Abbie Hoffman, leader of the Yippies, recognized phreaking as a chance to leech from a repressive system. Phreaking dovetailed nicely with the ethos detailed in his 1971 manifesto, Steal This Book.

Others saw building and selling blue boxes as a way to make a living. The Esquire story even inspired a couple of entrepreneurs named Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak to team up and build blue boxes together. It was the first chapter of a partnership that would give birth to Apple. And so phreaking—and hacking as a whole—spiraled out of the hands of the original phreaks, growing ever more complex, multi-faceted, and, at times, entirely devoid of its ideal of knowledge for knowledge’s sake.

The recent emergence of SWAT-ing—the practice of spoofing your victim’s caller ID, dialing 911, and reporting a violent crime in progress, thereby dispatching an armed SWAT team to your target’s address—illustrates just how malicious certain branches of modern phreaking have become. Few people are as familiar with SWAT-ing as a phreaker who goes by the handle Lucky225. Lucky stumbled across phreaking as a seventh grader in the ’90s, when a friend printed out The Anarchist Cookbook and brought it to his house. Although the blue boxes of yesteryear were by then obsolete, Lucky built other devices that let him access the system. By way of his brother-in-law, who operates under the name Lotus, Lucky became involved with party lines—toll-free chat rooms where phreakers meet. In the party lines, Lucky admits he was a “little cocky,” and “talked shit.” Eventually, Lucky and his brother-in-law tangled with a group headed by Stuart Rosoff, a ruthless phreaker. In an act of provocation, the brothers-in-law broke into a member of the group’s cell phone, replacing the recorded greeting with a computerized voice that read off their address. It was a particularly dangerous affront in a circle where SWAT-ing was a common form of revenge.

To teach Lucky and Lotus a lesson, Rosoff’s group began SWAT-ing any addresses with which the two were associated. Lucky was confident in his ability to “stay off the grid” by concealing his address—that is, until a SWAT team arrived at his parents’ home. His father, taken aback by their presence, refused to raise his hands in the air when ordered to do so. Fortunately, Lucky’s mother defused the situation. On a separate occasion, Lucky says, a SWAT team was dispatched to a home in Killeen, Texas, from which he had already moved. Police were misled into believing a male shooter was on the premises. The current tenants were a single mother and her child. When the SWAT team surrounded the home, the child ran upstairs to his room, called his mother—then at work—and peeked through the windows. Over the scanner, police reported that an individual was upstairs holding something in his hands. Lucky, who had been forewarned of the attack, was listening in on the scanner and called the police to report the incident as a false alarm. But he had little success—once the SWAT call was made, authorities had to follow protocol. Before neutralizing the perceived threat, though, the police ran the water bill against the address, found the mother’s cell phone number, and determined the incident to be a hoax. Lucky doesn’t even consider Rosoff and other SWAT-ers to be phreakers, rather thugs with a fetish for intimidation.

The story of phone hacking is a tale of innocence lost and power abused: 60 years ago, a few industrious kids discovered a glitch in the system that offered a fascinating puzzle for curious minds. And as the system evolved, so did the phreakers, developing ever more dangerous tools—weapons, which are now readily available to any hack journalist or disgruntled party-line caller. In 2008, Rosoff was found guilty and given a 60-month prison sentence for leading a group whose SWAT-ings resulted in roughly 250 victims, at least 2 injuries, and a quarter million dollars in losses to telecommunication companies and emergency responders. Rosoff was released in September 2012, which has Lucky understandably on edge. “He has a vendetta against me and my brother-in-law,” he says. “I guarantee he’ll be looking for our info if he hasn’t already.”