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Book Review: Exploding the Phone

samzenpus posted about a year ago | from the read-all-about-it dept.

Books 64

benrothke writes "Phil Lapsley calls his book 'the untold story of the teenagers and outlaws who hacked Ma Bell.' The story is an old one, going back to the early 1960's. Lapsley was able to track down many of the original phone phreaks and get their story. Many of them, even though the years have passed, asked Lapsley not to use their real names." Read below for the rest of Ben's review.While parts of the story have been told before, Lapsley's far-reaching research brings many of the central characters into a single read, resulting in an extremely interesting and engrossing read.

When Alexander Graham Bell created his harmonic telegraph, which would later turn into the telephone, it was like the Internet, built for functionality, with no inherent security controls. Those security vulnerabilities were begging to be found, and when they were discovered by the phone phreaks, it was a wake-up call to AT&T.

Defining a phone phreak is like defining a hacker; it means different things to different people. Lapsley defines it as "someone who loves exploring the telephone system and experimenting with it to understand how it works.

What the phone phreaks did was to spend endless hours dialing different numbers to understand how the inner-workings of the telephone system operated. Meaningless sounds to most people were music to the phreaks as they could determine how calls were routed via these tones.

Many of the phreaks practiced what is today known as social engineering and would impersonate phone company employees and technicians.

The devices that enabled them to make phone calls were called black boxes, blue boxes, and red boxes. The book notes that Steve Wozniak (who wrote the forward to the book) and Steve Jobs sold blue boxes before they started Apple. In fact, Jobs is quoted as saying that if they hadn't built blue boxes, there wouldn't have been an Apple.

The book has many layers to it. One part is an interesting history of the telephone and long-distance communications. It then segues into phone phreaks, who much like early computer hackers, used the phone network as a portal for exploration and hacking. The vast majority of the phone phreaks did it for the thrill, rather than just to make free phone calls.

One of the things the phone phreaks did was to read as much corporate documentation and manuals (obtained both legally and serendipitously) as they could. Lapsley notes that many of the technical documents that the phone company shared were in truth highly confidential.

As AT&T was a monopoly with zero competition, the notion that someone would use their own technical documentation against them was unheard of. Lapsley writes that for reasons of corporate pride, national service and public relations, AT&T felt an obligation to share its latest and greatest technical feats with the public. For that reason, the Bell System Technical Journal was required reading for every phone phreak.

The web site for the book has available many of the technical documents detailed in the book that played a role in the development of phone phreaking.

The book details many similarities between the phone phreaks and the early Internet hackers. While law enforcement stated that Kevin Mitnick could launch missiles via whistling into the phone, law enforcement called the phone phreaks a public menace, mentally unstable, a national threat and much more.

Like early hackers, the phone phreaks showed how engineering insiders are often the last to know what is actually possible with the systems they design. Lapsley noted that part of the problem was pride, in that Bell Labs had created the public telephone switching network, and they didn't want to admit how vulnerable it was. Its engineers were spring-loaded to disbelieve reports to the contrary.

Another advantage the phone phreaks, like hackers, had is that the Bells Labs engineers only looked at the systems as how it was supposed to work. That blinded them to how the system actually did work and how it could be made to do things it was never designed to do,

The results were that they couldn't see the holes in their own network; holes that a blind teenager found. Even when that blind teenage told them of the problem, (the book tells the story of Joe Engressia), they didn't understand it when first described to them.

The book describes another major technical security oversight made by AT&T in 1970 with the introduction of the telephone credit card. Lapsley writes that fraud was epidemic as AT&T's credit card numbering system was a bad joke from a security perspective. The card numbers were easy to guess and highly predictable resulting in millions of dollars of related fraudulent calls.

One of the main recurring characters in the book is John Draper, better known as Captain Crunch. Draper made a lot of money as a legitimate software engineer, but lost it due to his business naiveté and personal demons. Draper had numerous arrests related to phone phreaking and served time in prison.

The book notes that Draper's arrest in 1976 is a textbook case of how not to deal with the FBI when arrested. One of the incredulous things Draper did when he was read his rights was to waive them. While the FBI didn't have a search warrant, he voluntarily allowed them to search his apartment and Volkswagen Van, where incriminating evidence was indeed discovered.

While Draper was later convicted, the book quotes a fascinating observation by a phone company employee in that 90% of the phone phreak and hacker cases, law enforcement in fact had no criminal case. Most of the evidence they had was things they couldn't be prosecuted for. Either there was no legitimate crime on the books or all they had was the phone phreaks confession, but no tangible evidence.

It wasn't just the phone phreaks who were raising havoc on the phone company networks. The book writes of others who used black boxes and blue boxes for free calls. From Mafia bookies, to the Hare Krishna movement making fraudulent long-distance phone calls.

The book closes in 1982 when the US Dept. of Justice and AT&T came to an agreement to break up Ma Bell in the Baby Bells.

Lapsley has a degree in electrical engineering from UC. Berkeley so he as a deep first-hand understanding of the technology he is writing about. He also has the unique ability to write about bland technical topics and make them both engaging and comprehensible. He understands directly the curiosity the phone phreaks had and the passion to understand the inner workings of the phone system.

For a book that ends over 30 years ago, Phil Lapsley does a superb job of writing the story of the glory days of phone phreaking. In 2013, the notion of a domestic long-distance call is for the most not in anyone's lexicon. But making free long-distance calls was the mantra of the phone phreaks.

Exploding the Phoneis the first comprehensive history of the era of phone phreaking and Lapsley has done a masterful job a making the story fascinating and readable.

Reviewed by Ben Rothke.

You can purchase Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws who Hacked Ma Bell from amazon.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews (sci-fi included) -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.

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Dont blame them (3, Funny)

spire3661 (1038968) | about a year ago | (#43939653)

In the current political climate, i wouldnt admit to anything regarding telecom or computers.

Re:Dont blame them (2)

msauve (701917) | about a year ago | (#43939721)

...if you do, you might get offered a job at the NSA.

Re:Dont blame them (1)

SJHillman (1966756) | about a year ago | (#43939937)

And then they'll arrest you as soon as you get there. This way, the government saves a couple gallons of gas and keeps taxes low!

Re:Dont blame them (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#43940005)

Or a wee chat with Carmen Ortiz where the alternatives are thirty years in prison or suicide, whichever comes first.

Re:Dont blame them (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#43940835)

What is that supposed to mean?

Re:Dont blame them (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#43939765)

In Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws who Hacked Ma Bell, author Phil Lapsley calls his book 'the untold story of the teenagers and outlaws who hacked Ma Bell.'

Am I the only one who thinks it's weird to repeat the subtitle right after saying it?

Re:Dont blame them (1)

Steve_Ussler (2941703) | about a year ago | (#43940151)

Not sure it is weird. May not according to the style guide.

Re:Dont blame them (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#43940297)

I think it falls in the don't sweat the small stuff category.

Re:Dont blame them (1)

nitehawk214 (222219) | about a year ago | (#43939919)

In the current political climate, i wouldnt admit to anything regarding telecom or computers.

Or perhaps it is like me not admitting to knowing Perl when my boss asked my team if someone on my team could help with a Perl script.

Captain Crunch!!! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#43939703)

The original hacker.....

Re:Captain Crunch!!! (2, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#43939929)

John Draper has, of all things, a Twitter account. [twitter.com] I found it oddly depressing, but I can't quite put my finger on why. Something to do with demystifying old heroes, perhaps.

Re:Captain Crunch!!! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#43940335)

thank you! Missed that one...

Re:Captain Crunch!!! (1)

dr_dank (472072) | about a year ago | (#43940697)

Come to think of it, he never did return his Slashdot interview [slashdot.org] , did he?

Re:Captain Crunch!!! (1)

Steve_Ussler (2941703) | about a year ago | (#43949367)

What do you mean 'return his interview'??

Re:Captain Crunch!!! (1)

dr_dank (472072) | about a year ago | (#44018855)

As in he never responded to the questions sent. Either that, or the dog ate it.

Re:Captain Crunch!!! (1)

Steve_Ussler (2941703) | about a year ago | (#44028531)

try an alternative contact method perhaps...

Re:Captain Crunch!!! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#43940955)

His portrayal in the book is less generous. According to Lapsley's account Draper just tagged along with the real hackers. Joe Engressia is just as deserving of acclaim IMHO.

Re:Captain Crunch!!! (1)

Ungrounded Lightning (62228) | about a year ago | (#43941343)

According to Lapsley's account Draper just tagged along with the real hackers.

I knew him in those days. He really was quite innovative.

But also quite talkative. I have amazed others who knew him when I describe the time he was staying at my place I actually got him to shut up for over a minute in the middle of a technical discussion.

Of course I did it by showing him something with a phone that he didn't think was possible. (He then shut up while he worked out some of the ramifications.)

Re:Captain Crunch!!! (1)

Steve_Ussler (2941703) | about a year ago | (#43949379)

EVERYONE agrees the Captain did a lot....history often forgets.

Poorly written summary. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#43939749)

So the author calls his book by the title of his book?

Never judge a book by its cover... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#43939767)

In Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws who Hacked Ma Bell, author Phil Lapsley calls his book 'the untold story of the teenagers and outlaws who hacked Ma Bell.'

I wonder if this book tells the untold story of the teenagers and outlaws who hacked Ma Bell? It's so hard to tell.

Redundantly redundant (4, Funny)

Hardhead_7 (987030) | about a year ago | (#43939777)

"In Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws who Hacked Ma Bell, author Phil Lapsley calls his book 'the untold story of the teenagers and outlaws who hacked Ma Bell.'

At this point, I think the editors are trolling us.

Re:Redundantly redundant (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#43939883)

Maybe, maybe not.

This begs the question, is this the untold story of the teenagers and outlaws who hacked Ma Bell, or is this simply an untold story of teenagers and outlaws who hacked Ma Bell?

Either way, the story is clearly the untold story of the teenagers and outlaws who hacked Ma Bell, its right in the title, Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws who Hacked Ma Bell.

The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws who Hacked Ma Bell.

Re:Redundantly redundant (1)

Steve_Ussler (2941703) | about a year ago | (#43940177)

Lather, rinse, repeat. That was recursive before it was cool.

Re: Redundantly redundant (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#43952817)

That's not recursion, that's an infinite loop.

Hope the book is better than the review (3, Informative)

Deep Esophagus (686515) | about a year ago | (#43939783)

"Forward by Steve Wozniak... " "Steve Wozniak (who wrote the forward to the book)..."

Were all editors killed in the cultural revolution? Forward is a direction. Foreword is a word that comes before other words.

Re:Hope the book is better than the review (1)

sribe (304414) | about a year ago | (#43939931)

On another note, I wonder if this book might be the untold story of the teenagers and outlaws who hacked Ma Bell???

Re:Hope the book is better than the review (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#43940105)

I hope not. Erotic novels suck.

Re:Hope the book is better than the review (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#43940115)

Who wrote the "forward" to the book? It would be cool if Steve Wozniak wrote it.

Re:Hope the book is better than the review (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#43942263)

I still don't know, as I keep looking below for the rest of the review. I must have dropped it. :-(

Re:Hope the book is better than the review (3, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#43940121)

Were all editors killed in the cultural revolution? Forward is a direction. Foreword is a word that comes before other words.

Not to mention:

One of the things the phone phreaks did was to read as much corporate documentation and manuals (obtained both legally and serendipitously) as they could.

and

One of the incredulous things Draper did when he was read his rights was to waive them.

These words, I don't think they mean what you think they do...

Re:Hope the book is better than the review (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#43941283)

Not to mention:

But you did mention it!

Re:Hope the book is better than the review (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#43942333)

"Not to mention" means "in addition to," it's idiomatic.

Millions of dollars of calls? (1)

hawguy (1600213) | about a year ago | (#43939847)

Were hackers really racking up millions of dollars of fraudulent calls, or was AT&T using the same inflated math that the BSA use to calculate loss of revenue from piracy -- by using full retail prices, even though there may have been no loss of revenue or cost to the carrier. AT&T may have been charging 75 cents/minute for a peak time cross country call in 1975, but that doesn't mean that the incremental cost to handle a call cost them anything at all.

Re:Millions of dollars of calls? (3, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#43940021)

The credit card number was not a secret at my high school. It was a phone number + 3 digit code + one letter. Most 3 digit numbers were valid. And the letter was keyed to the middle digit of that code.

So I remember a valid credit card number was [any valid phone number in the country] + x8x + R. You had to call through an operator, she asked for the number you were calling and the CC number then put the call through. I know kids in my class that were calling Disneyland and asking for prices, making reservations at restaurants across the country, and just pranking random long distance numbers.

Re:Millions of dollars of calls? (1)

Maximum Prophet (716608) | about a year ago | (#43940073)

Yes, but.

In the case of AT&T there were real physical limits to the number of calls that could be made from A -> B, and if the last slot was used by a hacker, there was one less slot for a paying customer. Most of the time there was overcapacity, mostly because AT&T did overcharge business customers, so they could afford to overbuild.

Re:Millions of dollars of calls? (2)

hawguy (1600213) | about a year ago | (#43940181)

Yes, but.

In the case of AT&T there were real physical limits to the number of calls that could be made from A -> B, and if the last slot was used by a hacker, there was one less slot for a paying customer. Most of the time there was overcapacity, mostly because AT&T did overcharge business customers, so they could afford to overbuild.

Yeah, that's kind of my point - unless AT&T was building more capacity to support the hacked phone calls, then there was really no real cost to them (except maybe termination charges for international calls). If it was really costing them money, then they would have found a way to stop the hacking sooner. Just like how if a million copies of Microsoft office are pirated in China, that doesn't mean Microsoft lost $500 * 1 million = $500 million dollars since it's unlikely that many of the people that used a pirated copy would have bought a copy at full retail price.

Actually, it made them money. (1)

Ungrounded Lightning (62228) | about a year ago | (#43941177)

if the last slot was used by a hacker, there was one less slot for a paying customer. ... unless AT&T was building more capacity to support the hacked phone calls, then there was really no real cost to them (except maybe termination charges for international calls)

But the network traffic, like power consumption, varied a lot with time-of-day, and the network had to be sized to handle the peaks. The phone phreaks usually did their deeds at off-peak hours.

Even if they DID have to install extra equipment, that just meant they made MORE money. The arrangement that granted their monopoly, in return for providing universal service, let them (in cooperation with the regulatory bodies) set prices so they received a guaranteed rate of return. The more they spent, the more profit they made. So as long as the phreaks weren't disrupting things too badly they weren't a financial drag.

That, by the way, is apparently the genesis of Bell Labs. As long as they spent money on something plausibly related to improving telephone service, every dollar they spent brought in a dollar and six cents or so. So Bell hired a lot of smart people, gave them equipment, and told them to go to it (and just publish a couple articles a year in the company journal). (Financially, though, it was a "failure": Chartered to lose money, it actually made money, even in its first year, by licensing the technology it developed.)

Re:Actually, it made them money. (1)

tolkienfan (892463) | about a year ago | (#44006027)

How is that a failure?

If they'd lost more money than intended, that would be a failure.

Even losing less would be a success... making money is a big success.

Re:Actually, it made them money. (1)

Ungrounded Lightning (62228) | about a year ago | (#44045583)

How is that a failure?

Under that legal regime, if you don't lose a dollar, you can't charge your customers $1.06 to cover it with a little profit.

If Bell Labs spends (for example) a hundred million and makes nothing, AT&T would have charged the ratepayers a hundred six million and made six million dollars. But when Bell Labs spent (again for example) a hundred million and made a hundred and one million licensing their inventions, AT&T doesn't get to charge its customers an extra hundred six million and only makes one million dollars, not six million.

And they get to cry all the way to the bank.

Of course it soon made enough that they were farther ahead of the amount Bell would have made by soaking the customers. But the original plan was a "failure".

I wish I could "fail" that way, even on a somewhat smaller scale. B-)

Re:Millions of dollars of calls? (1)

Ungrounded Lightning (62228) | about a year ago | (#43941207)

Were hackers really racking up millions of dollars of fraudulent calls, or was AT&T using the same inflated math that the BSA use to calculate loss of revenue from piracy -- by using full retail prices, even though there may have been no loss of revenue or cost to the carrier.

To some extent it was the inflated math case. The retail rates on long distance service were set very high, to generate money that subsidized rural phone service (which ran at a loss, due to line length, but had to be provided as part of the deal that gave Bell their monopoly charter). The Phreaks mostly used the lines at off-peak hours, when the trunks they used would otherwise be idle.

Worth noting (2)

stox (131684) | about a year ago | (#43939979)

Phil was one of the authors of the NNTP protocol. http://www.w3.org/Protocols/rfc977/rfc977 [w3.org]

Re:Worth noting (1)

Steve_Ussler (2941703) | about a year ago | (#43960549)

Is NNTP still in use?

Secret names (2)

intermodal (534361) | about a year ago | (#43940001)

Their identities are such a secret that the author managed to track them down fifty years later.

Re:Secret names (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#43940901)

I guess they were not 'that' secret...

What is was like... (2)

smurd (48976) | about a year ago | (#43940175)

To get a feeling for what is was like: (audio only)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IgoIJ9UDm5E
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zkUf3V7XjMU

You can tell the old Phreaks because they are crying at the end of Part II

Re:What is was like... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#43940785)

Now all that is needed is an explanation of why anybody wanted to do that. I mean really. Somehow I can imagine someone enjoying watching grass grow since it doesn't involve anything unpleasant but those noises made my ears hurt.

Re:What is was like... (1)

Steve_Ussler (2941703) | about a year ago | (#43940909)

You have to be a phone freak to understand the joy of those tones...

Re:What is was like... (1)

ganjadude (952775) | about a year ago | (#43942937)

pretty much. hell i wasnt so mucha phreak ,but i remember in HS i had a tape recorder and got recordings of the tones made when you dropped a quarter in the pay phones to give myself free phone calls. this was in the 90s even.

Re:What is was like... (1)

Steve_Ussler (2941703) | about a year ago | (#43949363)

Good ole fashion fun...

Re:What is was like... (1)

Steve_Ussler (2941703) | about a year ago | (#43940805)

very cool!

Why do teenagers get away with the hacking? (1)

Kaenneth (82978) | about a year ago | (#43940547)

I know of a guy who had the FBI show up right on the morning of his 18th birthday; they were just waiting until they could charge him as an adult without question.

Ironically, they should have waited one more day, as his birth certificate showed he was born in the evening... settled with a plea bargain, so it never went to trial to resolve that question.

Re:Why do teenagers get away with the hacking? (1)

Steve_Ussler (2941703) | about a year ago | (#43940599)

Sounds fishy....the DoB is determined by the day, not time. A person born on Jan 1. at 12:03AM or a little less than 24 hours later at 11:58PM have the same DoB. If there was a plea bargain, it means there is public record of it. You have a source?

Re:Why do teenagers get away with the hacking? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#43940917)

if true then the kid had a good lawyer and a sympathetic judge.

Waiting outside for his 18th birthday - seriously. The FBI agent wasn't just a dick but a prick too.

Re:Why do teenagers get away with the hacking? (1)

karnal (22275) | about a year ago | (#43946157)

How could the person in question be charged as an adult when the crimes committed were performed during the time he was a minor?

Re:Why do teenagers get away with the hacking? (1)

Steve_Ussler (2941703) | about a year ago | (#43949401)

Good point...I asked for a docket # for the case...none given... I suspect this is an urban legend.

Re:Why do teenagers get away with the hacking? (1)

Kaenneth (82978) | about a year ago | (#43956877)

Possession based crimes, it was more than 20 years ago. The plea had it done as a minor, so the records are sealed so it dosn't affect his job options, and I'm not going to screw with that by naming him.

Slashdot has moved beyond inept editors... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#43941311)

... and now is accepting stories from inept writers.

Between the redundancies, one sentence paragraphs, awkward construction, lack of coherency, and numerous punctuation errors, this "book report" would receive a failing grade in an average eighth grade English class.

Re:Slashdot has moved beyond inept editors... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#43941501)

Maybe....but this is Slashdot. None of that stuff matters.

And when we reply as Anonymous Cowards..

The Canadian Connection... (1)

tlhIngan (30335) | about a year ago | (#43941315)

One thing this book did for me was explain the Canadian connection. I knew about phone phreaks and such, and I heard lots of stuff about how our beloved BC phone company (BC Tel then, Telus now) was at the center of it all. No one explained why or how.

Very fascinating, really, about how the local phone company ended up being the nexus of phreaking activity.

Fun with Grammar (1)

wjcofkc (964165) | about a year ago | (#43941939)

I see everyone attacking the grammar in the review, so I think I'll jump in too.

Here is your first sentence:

"While parts of the story have been told before, Lapsley's far-reaching research brings many of the central characters into a single read, resulting in an extremely interesting and engrossing read."

You used the word "read" twice in the same sentence. The sentence would be better written:

"Lapsley's far-reaching research brings many of the central characters into a single, extremely interesting, and engrossing read."

If you aspire to write to an audience you have a little brushing up to do.

The alliteration that my own first sentence suffers from, is intended to be ironic.

Re:Fun with Grammar (1)

Steve_Ussler (2941703) | about a year ago | (#43949411)

Fine....grammar ain't perfect. But people...this is Slashdot, not the New York Review of Books or Oxford Journal. Or is it?

Re:Fun with Grammar (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#43949453)

Attacking grammar on /. is like Lindsay Lohan critiquing William Shakespeare. Just does not work.

Phone phreaks: driven by need (1)

DNS-and-BIND (461968) | about a year ago | (#43943693)

I remember a time when in-state long distance was 50 cents a minute while out-of-state was 20-30 cents a minute. Some federal law or something. Which sucked, because everything I wanted to do was in-state. Enter phone phreaking! Make all your calls for free, from any phone in the country. There was a period of about eight years where I never paid for a phone call, ever. It was convenient as I ended up doing a lot of traveling and at the end I was making hour-long international phone calls originating overseas without worrying about a thing.

What killed it? The cost of long distance fell through the floor. It's been a while since cell networks let you call nationwide for the same price as local calls. Even direct-dialing international calls from my cell phone is a reasonable price.

Plus, SS7. Seriously, fuck SS7.

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