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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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,
He's one of few here who can claim a run-in with
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
"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
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
"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
"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
"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
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
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  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
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
"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
Even for a phreak though, they don't make for good bed-time
"[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
"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
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
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
Today the company is Apple Inc., and both Jobs and Wozniak
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
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.