Nowadays, hackers usually commit crimes online. But before keyboards and coding, a few young misfits in the 1960s and 1970s figured out how to hack phones, too. These phones weren’t smart like they are today, these were old-fashioned ‘hello, operator’ machines bound by landlines and switchboards.
But when the “phone phreaks” of the mid-20th century hacked into those phones, it was the start of an arms race in network security between hackers and programmers that continues with the firewalls and malware of today.
“Security wasn’t much of a concern for a lot of the phone companies,” said Chad Perkins, who works in Internet security for the Maine government. Perkins helps run The Telephone Museum, located just north of Ellsworth, where a new interactive exhibit gives visitors a history of the phone phreaks. “These guys really ripped the top off and said ‘this is vulnerable.’”
Now any product that has an electronic network interface — whether it’s your car or your phone or the Internet — has to have security built into it.”
Despite their impact on the world of information security, most hackers weren’t trying to be techno-saboteurs at first. They were mostly just kids looking for fun. One of the early hackers was a blind Virginian named Joe Engressia. At age 7, Engressia discovered he could make a long-distance phone call for free, simply by whistling in seventh octave E, which is 2,600 Hz. He would call an operator, request an out-of-service long-distance number, then blow one long whistle at 2,600 Hz. That would close the half of the connection leading from the operator to the out-of-service number. But since Engressia didn’t physically hang up the phone, it left the connection between him and the operator open — unbeknownst to the operator, of course. Engressia would then whistle a new ten-digit number to call anywhere in the world.
“It was a serious security flaw,” Perkins said. “This is when hackers would start using their multi-frequency tones to call Los Angeles and talk half the night.”
But the fun wouldn’t last forever. In 1968, Engressia was discovered by the Bell Telephone Co., which connected a third of all the telephones in the United States. He was nearly kicked out of the University of South Florida, where he was selling free long-distance calls to fellow students for $1 each.
The news coverage of the event helped form a community of phone phreaks all over the country. They learned to hold free-of-charge conference calls so that they could swap tips on hacking. Many of them —including a UC Berkeley student named Steve Jobs — built blue boxes to emit the 2,600 Hz signal, but some hackers preferred to use toy flutes or plastic whistles that came in a box of Cap’n Crunch cereal. Some did get arrested as “Ma Bell” figured out a way to secure the system.
“At the time the circuits between cities were all analog, all copper wires,” Perkins said. He explained how, after the hackers, the telephone companies installed computers to carry signals along a digital interface. They replaced copper wires with the zeroes and ones of binary code, which “pretty much made it hacker-proof.”
In today’s world of satellites and smartphones, old-school hackers are a thing of the past. But visitors to The Telephone Museum can relive hacking magic through its interactive exhibits. In between old phones and maps of phone lines are hidden two pretend out-of-service phone numbers. Once visitors find the numbers, they can use them to hack a call to each other using two phones in the exhibit.
“Just like the hackers had to poke around and discover what the two numbers were that they had to call, you have to do that, too,” said Steve Pater, a museum member who has experience putting together trade shows and exhibits for Hartwhig Exhibits, in Wisconsin. Pater explained that the exhibit also features blue boxes for visitors to test if they can beep phone numbers at the rate needed in order to hack a call, which is about ten numbers a second.
To make it all feel authentic, the museum has plenty of heavy metal objects (HMOs, as they call them), including aisles of 13-foot tall crossbar switching systems which rattle and shake every time a call goes through. There also are payphones and early 20th century crank phones that go back to the dawn of telephone technology.
“We really start from the beginning,” Pater said.