Phreaking Out Ma Bell

Released: 1/30/2013 5:00 PM EST
Source Newsroom: IEEE Spectrum Magazine
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Newswise — Modern computing culture stems not from the von Neumanns and Turings of this world, who conceived of the machines, nor even from the scientists who built them into networks, but rather from the youngsters who broke into those networks. Those hackers and crackers cut their teeth on the phone system, and only in part because they wanted to save a few dollars on long-distance calls. Their main motivation was the simple thrill of breaking in.

The story is narrated brilliantly in an article in this month's IEEE Spectrum, based on a chapter excerpted from the just-published book, Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws Who Hacked Ma Bell, by Phil Lapsley. Lapsley, an electrical engineer turned business consultant, spent years pursuing his private passion for "phone phreaking." He spoke to the people who grew up with the technology and re-created their analytical train of thought, which he recounts clearly and in sufficient detail to allow attentive readers to do it themselves--at least, to do it to the phone network as it stood half a century ago.

This excerpt deals principally with Ralph Barclay, a young engineering student in Washington state who stumbled on a technical description of the Bell Telephone System's new switching method and realized how it could be circumvented. To generate the tones that would fool the network's sensors, he created a box full of electronics, operated by an old-fashioned telephone dial. Because the box happened to be painted blue, this most fundamental phreaking tool became known as the blue box. The challenge of the problem, the satisfaction of finding a solution, and the thrill of getting away with what at the time was still only an adolescent prank all gave rise to a do-it-yourself programming culture, a culture that made the Web what it is today. Of course, it also gave rise to computer viruses, Internet worms, and outright cyberwar. In short, nothing in today's technological world can be understood except in the light of the blue box.


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