Piracy before the Internet


Piracy before the Internet

Telephone attacks manipulated the world’s largest machine and its company

David Braue

Melbourne, Australia – September 30, 2023

For a generation of today’s young people raised with smartphones, multi-megabit downloads, and digital home phones before them, the idea that the telephone system was once primitive enough to be manipulated with a plastic whistle is to both strange and enticing.

But that’s exactly what happened in the 1970s, when natural curiosity about the evolution of telephone networks gave rise to a generation of curious “phone phreaks” who devoted much time and energy to poking and prodding the telephone network to see what was going on behind that rotary handset.

They were the forerunners of today’s hackers, sharing tips and tactics not through closed, cryptic message groups but through printed newsletters distributed by mail.

More than anything, former phreaker Phil Lapsley recently told Cybercrime Magazinea moment of discovery.

“I’m a curious person, which is one of the hallmarks of phone attacks,” said Lapsley, whose book 2014 Explode the phone traces his journey through the phreaking world.

Cybercrime Radio: Phil Lapsley on Phreaking

History of phone hackers

“It was truly a wonderful thing to explore and understand the telephone network and the technology behind it.”

The technology behind the evolution of the telephone system was the byproduct of an effort to increase the automation of that system—which previously relied on calls routed by human operators—that began in the 1940s and quickly evolved into a highly complex interconnected network in which, Lapsley said, users “directly controlled the telephone system.”

Customers were “starting to interconnect these things with this kind of magical combination of humans as customers, telephones as machines, telephone switching equipment as machines, and then more humans – usually operators – and technicians and engineers designing and operating it all. »

“In the ’60s and ’70s, when you picked up the phone, you didn’t know it, but you were connected to the biggest machine (run by the biggest company) in the world.”

That’s when the phreaking community started circulating plans for how to build a blue box – a device that transmitted audio tones of certain frequencies that were used by the then-monopoly carrier AT&T to route calls over the telephone network.

One of these tones – 2600 Hz, which corresponds to the E of the seventh octave of a piano keyboard – could be easily reproduced and was inadvertently the pitch at which a widely distributed cereal box operated.

This coincidence led to a sort of phreaker renaissance, which phreakers love John “Captain Crunch” Draper exploited as they pushed the limits of the telephone system – an activity which saw him both convicted of telephone fraud in 1972 and led to a meeting with the co-founders of Apple Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, who ran a company selling blue boxes long before he designed what would become the Apple computer.

Radio on cybercrime: Steve Wozniak hacker

Apple co-founder on phone attacks

Like many “obsessively interested” enthusiasts at the time, Lapsley found plans for a blue box and built his own – a process which he says led him to start looking into the history of the devices and the telecommunications network they operated.

“I’m really curious about where this stuff came from and who the people are that invented it,” Lapsley said. “The next thing you know, I was doing research, going to libraries, filing Freedom of Information Act requests, and then one thing turned into another. Very quickly, I was writing a book.

From curiosity to crime

This process has uncovered all kinds of nuggets, like a Justice Department memo that revealed prosecutors weren’t “very enthusiastic” about having to track down and prosecute phone hackers in the United States just to make free phone calls.

One memo, Lapsley recalled, “basically said, ‘AT&T created this problem by engineering a vulnerability into its network. “And now they’re asking us to sort of clean up by suing those who profit from it. And we kind of think we have better things to do than sue people who make free phone calls.

Prosecution of phone hacking might never have been more extensive, except that it became clear that organized crime networks were increasingly interested in exploiting phone hacking to make free phone calls as part of their criminal activities.

This correlation between the manipulation of technology and organized crime has continued over the decades, with cybercriminal gangs now exploiting Internet technologies to expand the reach of their activities across the United States and around the world.

The ensuing game of cat and mouse has become a full-time job for the Ministry of Justice and other authorities, who are hunt down And stop cybercriminals as quickly as they can.

Interestingly, many of the biggest proponents of phreaking and other types of hacking ended up building careers as cybersecurity advocates: think Lapsley, Draper, and Kevin Mitnick, another hacking pioneer computer scientist who found himself on the wrong side of the law after taking his exploits a little too far.

Even in prison, Mitnick told Cybercrime Magazine Before his death earlier this year, that innate curiosity continued to manifest itself — like when he and a family member managed to track down Wozniak’s home phone number, then arranged a three-way phone call to catch up with him.

Cybercrime Radio: Kevin Mitnick goes wild

The most famous hacker in the world

It turns out that Wozniak was a late riser and didn’t answer his call well at 10 a.m., leading an embarrassed Mitnick to hang up.

“I never had a chance to talk to him,” Mitnick recalled. “I was totally embarrassed that I called this celebrity out of the blue, and he was angry because of the time of day I called. Years later, when I told him the story, he said, “Why didn’t you call back?” He knew very well what was going on in my case and would have loved to help me.

Indeed, for decades, the pioneers of the hacking movement moved around Mitnick and his peers in an ever-expanding orbit that also included blind legends of perfect pitch. Bubbles of joy and expert phreaker and social engineer »Susy Thunder” — whose scams and phone exploits became legendary in hacker circles, including her close friend Mitnick with whom she had “a long-standing mutual NDA.”

Building a global family

The organic growth of hacker communities was a revelation to many who had often followed a similar path of discovery to those early days of telephone system manipulation – and led them to become part of an underground subculture that they could never have imagined.

“Looking back, it’s strange how so many of us, if not almost all of us, had the same experience,” phreaker Evan Doorbell said. told Cybercrime Magazinelaughingly recalling that when I was a child, “I slept with a collection of lawn sprinklers” and was once obsessed with the “sultry” voice of the telephone network error message informing callers that the network could not not complete the number they had. compound.

Thoughts of loneliness were common as naturally curious children felt, “I’m the only person I know who is interested in this stuff, and everyone thinks I’m weird for spending so much time on the phone, and they can’t even categorize it. “, he remembers thinking. “I don’t think there’s anyone else in the world who has this interest.”

“And then there’s this breakthrough that happens at some point where you come into contact with someone who’s doing it, and it’s amazing,” he said.

Whether criminal activity or youthful curiosity, early phreaking fueled what now appears to be the halcyon days of hacking – a time before an emerging cybercriminal culture began to attract new members for different reasons.

Cybercrime Radio: Phreaker Evan Doorbell

Back to the 1970s

This culture followed the growth of the Internet in the 1990s as a new breed of cybercriminal – enabled by increasing connectivity and driven by the promise of rapidly increasing financial rewards – moving from DIY, of which the telephone company was the main victim, to the creation of the Internet. self-propagating malware and, ultimately, targeted, multifaceted attacks that continue to hit businesses and governments today.

Mitnick, Joybubbles, and countless other pioneers are now deceased, leaving a historic legacy of hacker empowerment that has become a romanticized reminder of the risks of foresight when developing new technologies.

“Any time you have a new technology, whether it’s AI or the Internet or the telephone in the 1960s, there are always going to be people playing with it,” Lapsley said. “There will be people who abuse it and do illegal things with it.”

But “I think we lived in a simpler time,” he continued, “where the main thing you could really do was make free phone calls.”

“The phone company has done a lot of work to build this network and allow people to make phone calls, and that constitutes theft in some sense, even though it is the theft of an inanimate object – an phone call – and, okay, people shouldn’t do that. But at the end of the day, if you actually look at the actual damage that was done, there’s not much.”

“This contrasts with the current situation,” he said, “where hacking is in the wrong sense of the word and cybercrime is a reality. And there’s a lot of damage happening today; it’s really not comparable. It really was a much more innocent time.

David Braue is an award-winning technology writer based in Melbourne, Australia.

Go here to read all articles from David’s Cybercrime Magazine.

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