Books: Exploding the Phone

So, I’ve been remiss with the book blogging. Here goes.

Exploding the Phone by Phil Lapsley is a group biography of the phone phreaks, possibly the original geek culture, exploiting the in-band signalling that phone companies relied on up to the late 70s for fun and if not profit, at least free calls.

I liked this because Lapsley talked to a lot of the people, not just the ones who got famous like John “Cap’n Crunch” Draper and Steve Wozniak, and also to the ones from the other side at the big expensive phone company and the FBI. There’s a lot of interesting stuff in here.

For example, AT&T Bell Labs’ effort to deal with the problem was Project Green Star, an instrument that plugged into a switch and correlated the signalling tones it generated internally with what it heard on the wire, logging anything anomalous and taping the first 90 seconds of suspected fraudulent calls. Installed in major network nodes, it did this on a random sampling basis in an effort to quantify the scale of the problem that rapidly broadened into an effort to cue in other forms of investigation. This was important because Green Star was very illegal, representing as it did an industrial-scale invasion of random phone users’ privacy. In many ways, the powers AT&T arrogated to itself in order to stop people making free calls paralleled those the NSA would grab under STELLAR WIND in 2001-2002, as did much of the litigation.

The phreaks understood themselves, under the radicalising influence of the Bell System and the cops’ effort to squash them, as part of the counterculture. I didn’t know, for example, just how much effort Abbie Hoffmann went to in order to spread information about fiddling with the phone system. On the contrary, I was well aware of just how ferociously conventional telco people can be, and some of the photos in here are absolute gold. Everyone on the AT&T side looks like they’re playing a CIA agent and distant father in a New Hollywood movie. I didn’t know, however, that the company was an early target and early triumph for feminist and black campaigners (and Richard Nixon in his flirting-with-basic-income quasi-radical mode). Also, for much of the time under discussion, a huge percentage of the active phreak community were blind.

You can take this too far, though. The Bellheads did have a point when they protested that they were protecting a great public service from irresponsible hackers who would do pretty much anything for the approval of their mates, like tinkering with USAF command-and-control networks in the middle of the Cold War. Also, as time went on, the scene began to attract the wrong crowd, the dangerously risk-loving, the trolls, informants and people who got their kicks pretending to know who the informants were, and the creepy. The guy responsible for getting into the military AUTOVON voice network was also in the habit of using the power to make unbilled phone calls to torment Pacific Bell’s operators, exclusively women. This was actually what triggered the final police crackdown, although the creep himself turned state’s evidence and shipped out in the military.

So there’s a sort of pre-history of the geek here, the scratchings on the cave walls, if it wasn’t for the fact that the medium is completely evanescent. You’ve got all the key tensions – between the defining insistence on the right of users to control technology, and the responsibility of engineers for things like public infrastructure, between the total inclusion that the technology made possible and the attraction it holds for predators, and in the end, between the attraction of community and the temptation of exclusion.

And then there’s the surveillance stuff and the Mafia bookies and the international element. There was a major trial in the UK at the beginning of the 1970s where a group of phreaks was convicted of stealing government electricity, namely the line current used to signal the call, because that was the only law available.

I am also quite pleased that I vaguely know one of the sources listed in the index, Brough Turner. I remember, when Skype brought out their WiFi sign-in product and the S60 client, phoning him up from the Skype stand at MWC on the WiFi. Even in the usual trade show hubbub (and hellish 2.4GHz environment) the SILK-V3 audio quality was superb and Brough was audibly enthusiastic.

That was when Skype was cool, though.

5 Comments on "Books: Exploding the Phone"

  1. It’s a fantastic book which I enjoyed enormously.

    It’s sadly lacking in detail and anecodes from the UK – which is fair enough – but there is much untold story. Some techniques (eg the chained local call) somewhat entered the popular culture of the time, but are now forgotten.

    [Tangent: there is at least one functioning BT public urinal in West Yorkshire which has both dialtone, and a 1980s-vintage listing of local-only dialling shortcodes of the “91 for Bradford, 92 for Leeds, 93 for Royston Vasey” type.]

    Regarding the 1973 Old Bailey trial ( is WELL worth a read) the only defendants convicted, pleaded guilty. Those who fought, won.


  2. Meant to add – sorry for double post – that one of the 1973 defendants is now somewhat well-known. You have certainly heard of him and enjoyed his work. I won’t name him as he has opted not to discuss the issue in his public biography, although he does admit it in private.


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