The Peak, Simon Fraser University's Student Newspaper since 1965,
Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada V5A 1S6,
e-mail:, phone: (604) 291-3597 fax: (604) 291-3786
Volume 95, Issue 3 January 20, 1997

Phreak show

by greg nesteroff, BCIT Link, Canadian University Press

25 years after the famous Esquire story, there are still those in the Lower Mainland who delight in manipulating the phone system.

In the food court of a Lower Mainland mall, a dozen or so youths-most in their late teens, all of them male-are discretely examining a set of books with such exotic titles as MiTell 5X Series Technical Notes.

Sitting innocuously on their tables is a bunch of gadgetry, ranging from the straightforward to the garishly complex.

Welcome to a meeting of Vancouver's official "2600 group," a club devoted to learning about telephone technology, while more often than not teetering on the brink of legality. (The "2600" is named after the cycles-per-second of a dial tone.)

There are many such groups worldwide, including chapters in Ottawa and Toronto. To be sanctioned by 2600 magazine as "official," each has to meet once a month in a public place-preferably a food court, because of the free seats and inspiring presence of the nearby pay phones.

Sometimes the group in Los Angeles will call up the group in Philadelphia, who will call the group in London. They don't call Vancouver, however, because the majority of pay phones in B.C.-including the ones here-won't take in-coming calls.

The people who come to these meetings are phone "phreaks."

To "phreak" is to use any one of a series of color-coded electronic "boxes" to make free telephone calls, both local and long-distance.

The most common nowadays is the red box, which can generate tones for nickels, dimes and quarters to trick pay phones into believing money has been deposited in them.

It works like this: each coin is recognized by a different pattern of the same megahertz tone, which varies from phone company to phone company, but generally is in the neighborhood of 1700 plus 2200.

The tone stays on for a fraction of a second, shuts off for a fraction of a second, and then repeats the cycle a certain number of times. A red box generates those frequencies in the appropriate sequence, so that when you play it into the receiver-if you're within 30 mhz of the real thing-the phone thinks coins have been dropped.

The beauty of red boxes, phreaks attest, is that all they really are is modified tone dialers that you can buy at Radio Shack, and they only cost $10 to $35.

Phreaking, as fate would have it, might not have advanced in epidemic proportions had an American phone company not done something incredibly stupid in the late 1960s.

Phreaking dates to the mid-'50s, when international direct dialling was introduced in the U.S., but it wasn't until someone published dialling frequencies in an AT&T systems journal that the golden age began.

Armed with those frequencies, anyone with a bit of electronic know-how could build themselves a "blue box," which had nothing to do with recycling. It allowed you to seize a tandem by dialling an 800 number, then playing a 2600 mhz tone-fooling the switching system, leaving it totally at your mercy. Improved phone company computers, however, have since rendered blue boxes obsolete.

Phreaking came to the public eye in October 1971, when Esquire magazine published Ron Rosenbaum's "Secrets Of The Little Blue Box." The article detailed how phreaking had become particularly popular with blind kids, and outlined the exploits of the most adroit phreak of all, John Draper-dubbed Captain Crunch after he discovered that a whistle in a box of Cap'n Crunch cereal produced a perfect 2600 mhz tone.

The published story had a huge impact, leading to grand jury investigations in several U.S. cities. (Recently The Georgia Straight's technology columnist suggested it as winter reading.)

Twenty-five years to the month after the Esquire story first appeared, I sat in with Vancouver's 2600 group.

Meetings are informal. No agenda, no guest speakers. Since the members' ages range from 15 to 30, with the core between 18 and 21, for once my age worked in my favour: when I explained who I was, they decided I probably wasn't a threat. As one guy, mid-20s, put it, "Dude, you look too young to be a journalist."

They were a bit nervous when I ask if I can use my tape recorder, but after some prodding, they consent and talked freely about their illicit hobby. The paranoia inherent is a bit of a joke, since they're well-versed with the law, and know they're perceived by BC Tel as an annoyance.

"They know we're out here, but six bucks here, ten bucks there, we're just way too small for them to care about," Mock says.

"We get all paranoid every so often, but really there's not a lot anyone could do, except maybe get a list of names. [But] most people either don't care and anyone can get their name, or you never know their real name anyway."

Most phreaks select a nom de phone to be known by at meetings. Mock (or Mach, I suppose), a 19-year- old university computer student, wears round glasses and has a shock of fuzzy blonde hair.

Three years ago, citing "incredible boredom in high school" and a phone system that was "very easily manipulated," he began dabbling in computers, electronics, and phreaking.

He's one of few here who can claim a run-in with authorities.

On one occasion, he was already pretty sure his line had been tapped-"they goofed up and played my voice back to me when I was in the middle of the conversation!"-and then a year and a half ago he was caught red handed, red boxing a university pay phone.

"I got a little too cocky, and well... got caught. I suspect BC Tel was listening in on my conversation, and they noticed it wasn't exactly about 'normal' stuff."

Someone called the RCMP, who in turn called campus security, who came down to see what was the matter.

"I was just talking on the pay phone at the time. They said 'Oh, someone appears to be defrauding this pay phone.' I said 'I wouldn't know anything about that.' They took my name and let me go. Then the RCMP arrived, and got a little upset. They arrested me, and searched me, and searched my apartment."

During questioning he told the truth, and was let go. "I was never charged, so that's cool. They decided six bucks worth of long distance-which was all they could prove-wasn't worth their time."

The university was more sorely pissed off.

"They made me write a little apology letter to BC Tel, telling them how I'd never, ever, ever do it again. Because that would be wrong," he says, then adds with a mischievous laugh, "BC Tel is a wonderful corporation."

At the same time he wrote the apology, he wrote another letter to a phreaking magazine detailing the incident, so it's difficult to tell if he's on the level when he says he hasn't done anything illegal since.

As he freely admits "Some people here might have committed an illegal act in the past, but no one's actually going to say they did it."

While we talk, a conspicuous camera flash goes off in the distance.

"Security guards are taking our picture again," says Mock.

"You mean they do it all the time?" I ask.

"Oh yeah," he says. "They also talk about us occasionally on their [walkie-talkies]."

"What do they do with the pictures?"

"Nothing. They can't do anything."

"Then why do you think they take them?"

"They're not really worried about anything to do with phones or what we might be talking about here," says Fallen Angel, 17, who started coming to the meetings six months ago after he heard about them on a website.

"They're more worried we're going to trash something."

"That or the fact we've been here for three straight hours and only two people have bought something," Mock adds. "I doubt [they know we're a 2600 group]. They probably think we're a youth gang."

That would be hard to believe. In fact, the phreaks here are almost all middle class and nicely dressed, more like Bill Gates than James Dean. They deride images of phreaks in movies like Hackers as patently ridiculous.

A phreak's mission in life, they say, is really just to find stuff that's "cool"-which may include things like carriers, testing tones ("not that exciting, but they sound neat"), PBXs, and loops. "It's not like you target a specific corporation and say 'Ooh, IBM Canada, let's see whether we can steal something from them," Mock says.

Phreaks, he admonishes, are rarely malicious.

"You can do a few malicious things. But it's really way too much effort. Most people are inherently lazy. In one of these meetings, someone actually offered us a lot of money to break into government computers. Everyone's narc detectors went off like you wouldn't believe. It was an immoral act, and most people here are not interested in doing it for cash. It's cool to do for kicks, but as soon as you actually start doing it for money, it's like espionage or something."

The most intriguing part of the Esquire story was a character that Rosenbaum never called by name: BC Tel.

Through the course of exploring the phone system, phreaks stumbled onto the 2011 exchange, "an unused Telex test-board trunk somewhere in the innards of a 4A switching machine in Vancouver."

For months, phreaks boxed their way in to 604-669-2011, the Vancouver number for internal Telex testing, and found themselves "at any time, day or night, on an open wire talking with an array of phone phreaks from coast to coast."

On April 1, 1971, however, the Vancouver conference was shut off following an equipment upgrade. The 2011 circuit was an inadvertent casualty. Phreaks learned the conference would be gone a week ahead of time by listening to a BC Tel internal news recording.

"For the next frantic seven days every phone phreak in America was on and off the [2011] conference 24 hours a day. Phone phreaks who were just learning the game . . . were boosted up to the conference by more experienced phreaks so they could get a glimpse of what it was like before it disappeared. Top phone phreaks searched distant area codes for new conference possibilities without success. Finally in the early morning of April 1, the end came."

But what neither the phreaks nor Rosenbaum knew about the conference, according to Gord Mackie, was that BC Tel was watching from the start.

Mackie is head of security for BC Tel, and has been with the company for 39 years, the last 26 in security. He had been there a year when the Esquire story broke.

"We monitored that call while it was on-going," he says in his windowless second-floor office on Seymour St. "There were some great expectations that something was supposed to come out of it, but nothing really happened."

Today Mackie heads a team of 12 investigators, and probably knows more about phone fraud than anyone else in B.C. But he's more concerned with subscription and cellular fraud than a bunch of teenagers getting kicks out of calls to Ulan Bator. The time, money and effort it takes to mount an investigation is just too expensive.

"We've developed technology to prevent [phreaks] from becoming overly-active," he says, handing me a couple of booklets the company prints on combating phreaks.

"In order to manipulate the network they either have to use different tones, or prevent it from operating in a certain way. We have sites in B.C. and in Toronto that monitor the network as a whole. Once we see a pattern happening, we zero in on where the call is originating from. We do some preliminary investigations ourselves, then get the police involved."

In the last year, there have been three arrests in the Lower Mainland and a couple in the interior. Most people plead guilty, get a fine, and if they're not Canadian-which is often-they are deported. One such case involved a pro basketball player.

The office also subscribes to phreak literature and saw the ad for the first 2600 meeting 15 months ago. Surveillance was dispatched, but "was a complete flop," according to Mackie. "Nobody showed up."

In fact, the founders of the meeting, one of them a 29-year- old systems administrator, said they knew they were being watched, so they changed locations without changing the ad-leaving a red herring. (It's still possible to get the real meeting place from other sources.)

Since then, the core group has grown to 20, with another dozen or so attending occasionally. By their own estimate, the group's regular members comprise the majority of phreaking activity in Vancouver.

New members are not exactly encouraged; while the group is open for anyone to join, they would prefer that people with nothing to contribute-"lamers"-keep their noses out. Mock says, "Just showing up at the meeting, if you don't have anything to bring, people are going to look at you and go 'you're an idiot,' and they're not going to talk to you.

"Ideally, you bring a cool toy that you think people would like to see. Or you bring a story that you've seen somewhere, or something that's happened to you. It's like show & tell in Kindergarten. Who can bring the coolest thing?"

Most of what he brings is fished out of trash bins.

"I'm a firm believer in recycling," he says. "A few people have business contacts, and they'll pick up stuff an office is throwing out. Sometimes you'll phone up the company and claim to be interested in ordering something or purchasing the system, and see whether or not you can get them to send you manuals. Or pretend to be someone who already owns one but lost it. There's various means of 'social engineering' to get people to give you their manuals, which are the coolest things."

Even for a phreak though, they don't make for good bed-time reading.

"[They're] boring as hell. But it's one of those things you're committed to 'cause you want to know how something works. Once you've finally figured it out, it's kind of cool. You get to play with it."

BC Tel's system is unique to the rest of Canada because it's partly owned by American GTE: the equipment is closer to that of U.S. phone companies, while the other provinces use Northern Telecom. The most coveted items to B.C. phreaks are a specific pair of switching manuals.

"If we could get our hands on those," Mock says, "we would worship the person who gave it to us forever. I know of one person who has one, but he's not in Vancouver. Those are the manuals for the switches that control all the phones in B.C. so it would be incredibly cool to actually have one."

"What sorts of things could you do with them?"

"Everything to do with phones. Everything. You could say, change the classifications of someone's line to a payphone, or make free lines routed to places outside of B.C., so everyone could call there for free, just like an 800 number."

"You could do anything that an operator or BC Tel technician could do," says Roakillz, 16.

"In other words," Mock says, his eyes alight, "you'd be a phone god."

Though most phreaks are loathe to build boxes for re-sale, no one ever said it can't pay dividends.

A guy named Steve Wozniak read the Esquire story when it came out and became enamored with blue boxes.

He learned how to build them, and with another guy, Steve Jobs, began selling them for $150 each.

With the profits, he paid off his college tuition and built motherboards for computer prototypes-he had this fledgling computer company named after a fruit, you see.

Today the company is Apple Inc., and both Jobs and Wozniak are gazillionaires.

Who knew?

Toward the end of the '70s, with the introduction of embryonic home computers like the Apple I, many phreaks began to turn their attention to the "new thing," computer hacking-the potential of which was greater than anything achievable through phreaking, and thus has received more media attention.

One question remains after all of this: if it isn't the free long-distance, what's the allure of phreaking?

Everyone has a theory, including Judith Beeman, BCIT grad and BC Tel operator.

She figures it's just the idea of getting away with it.

"You're getting something for free-something that you're not supposed to get for free. You're breaking down the wall, getting in the back door. I'm sure that's a challenge. And it is against the law. It's not nice."

A 17-year-old phreak who hasn't decided on a handle disagrees: "The reason I'm interested isn't for getting free phone calls or the sense of power you get from being able to outsmart a big corporation.

"It's mainly because there's so much knowledge just hidden from you, knowledge that you would never think to look for. There's beauty in the way things work. We're just blinded to it by the fact people don't want to tell us."

According to the phreaks, they're not actively working against BC Tel. In fact, without the phone company, it wouldn't be any fun at all.

"I've found out stuff about phone systems that I would have to pay thousands of dollars to get BC Tel to teach me," says Fallen Angel. "They have these wonderful courses-the cheapest is $250 for two days, the most expensive is $5,000 for two weeks-on pretty much everything. The only reason phreaking is around is because you can't get the information without paying all that money, except by doing it underground."

"Really," Mock says, "it's like making stuff from a cookbook. Someone's already published it. You just follow the directions, and there it is. But a lot of the people here are working on their own stuff, they're doing something no one has done before. And that requires intelligence. That requires knowledge."

The information is out there for anyone to use, particularly on the Internet, where it has been for years. Older phreaks and hackers have been on-line since the thing was called the Arpanet.

It is in high demand. If you check the bound volumes of Esquire at the Vancouver Public Library, you'll discover a curious thing: where "Secrets Of The Little Blue Box" should be, the pages have been torn out.