The Phreaks

By - Jun 1st, 2008 02:52 pm
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By Ken Brosky

I knew this guy, babe, he could do things with his mouth you ain’t never seen. And I ain’t talking about sex here, all right? All right? Get your head out of the gutter and listen to me, because this is a story that’s gonna blow your mind.

There was a guy named Steve who called himself Nines and a guy named Simon who called himself Case. And they were both Phreaks — not the kind we used to make fun of back in high school, not those freaks. I’m talking about Phreaks, babe: phone hackers. Guys who could work the phone system like a clitoris. They could do things that weren’t even supposed to be possible. Getting free calls was just the beginning for these guys, babe.

Let me start with Nines, because Nines was the godfather of them all. Nines didn’t really start the whole idea of phone hacking, I don’t think, because there’s no way to tell who really first started hacking phones, you know? But Nines was something incredible, and he knew it and he flaunted it. What did he do? I’ll tell you what he fucking did.

He whistled.

It all started in the 1960s, when Cap’n Crunch cereal included a free toy whistle in every box. The whistle just so happened to produce a 2600hz tone, which is the exact same tone that AT&T used as a steady signal for unused long-distance lines. Bear with me, babe, bear with me. I’m gonna explain this so even you understand it and appreciate it. What happened was someone figured out that by dialing a number and blowing the whistle into the phone, the phone company was tricked into assuming that the line wasn’t being used. After you blew the whistle, you could call anyone in the world for free.

You get it, babe? We’re talking free phone calls anywhere in the world, just by blowing that whistle into the phone. Think of AT&T Bell as a big fat bitch—she’s tough to get by, but she’s gotta have a sweet tooth of some kind. You get it? Good, so get this:

Nines taught himself to whistle that tone. Not only did he match the 2600hz pitch, he could whistle all of the tones for each of the numbers, which made it even easier to dial free long-distance anywhere. It started as a parlor trick, something he could do at college parties to get free beer or to get laid. Hey, how bad could that have been? Sure the guy was ugly as hell, but those long-distance bills to the parents could put a dent in the drinking money. Don’t tell me you wouldn’t consider it, babe — three minutes of sex with the lights out in exchange for a free half hour of family talk? Hell, I’d consider too, back in those days when there weren’t any cell phones and shit.

We’ll get back to the sex, because the sex turns out to be pretty important. But first, let me tell you about Case. Case came about ten years later, when more phreaks were running around, only these phreaks used to make their own toy boxes to copy the 2600hz dial tone because no one could copy what Nines was doing. No one else could get that whistle right, so they invented all these boxes that could trick the phone companies. Everything was starting to get a lot more complicated and serious. Turns out those wires outside your home lead to some pretty fucking amazing shit somewhere in Ma Bell’s stomach, and everyone was trying to figure out what got her hot. A spunky little teenager in Iowa was suddenly figuring out ways to listen in on conversations inside the FBI office in D.C., and that guy liked to call himself Case.

Case hated Nines because Nines wasn’t the first. A deaf guy by the name Engressia was the first to copy the 2600hz tone, but Nines always claimed to be the original. They both had mutual friends who were hacking the phone system, and so there had to eventually be a confrontation. No one I’ve ever talked to really knows exactly what happened, but here’s what I heard.

They were both drunk, and you know how passionate drunks can be. Have a beer with someone from the Green Party once, babe, and I swear you’ll want to go burn down a fucking forest. For these guys, a phone wasn’t just a phone. The phone system was one big giant computer, a system they could infiltrate — for Nines, it meant learning about the system. For Case, it meant corrupting the system and causing as much havoc as possible.

“A computer is a system made to be explored,” Nines said that night. I don’t know, I’m making this shit up — what they said was probably pretty close, but this isn’t word-for-word, babe.

“No,” Case said. He was probably drinking a Budweiser because that’s what people like Case drink. Case was probably sitting on one of the couches even if the party was packed, because he was a short guy and he hated being around tall people. “A system is made to be infiltrated and taken advantage of.”

Nines shook his head. “The discovery of a new system, a new connection … that’s what makes it so exciting. The idea that you can connect with anyone, at any time, simply by finding your way through a series of circuits … that in itself is the fundamental reason for phreaking.”

“You’re full of shit,” Case said, hardly able to control his passion with such a steady demeanor. Or maybe it was the five beers he had already downed. “It’s the idea that you can do anything inside the system. When you find a way to bypass the system, to get through to someone you’re not supposed to get through to, when you discover that which should not be discovered, then you’ve achieved success.”

You like that? I’m trying to talk like them, all philosophical and shit, and all educated, but maybe they weren’t like that. That’s not the point, babe. This is the point:

We’re talking light side vs. dark side, babe. Star Wars back when Empire Strikes Back first came out, and you know what happened to the good guys in that one. There was no way to stop it—the more Nines talked about exploration and discovery, the more pissed off Case got. Those who didn’t take advantage of Ma Bell’s weaknesses were just as weak as her, from Case’s point-of-view. He couldn’t take it. He would put Nines in his place once and for all and show everyone exactly what the future of hacking looked like.

It was decided by mutual friends that the only way to settle this type of situation was with a quick-draw. They went into D.C.’s subway and staked out a group of payphones tucked away next to The Newsstand and set the rules: Nines and Case would both take a phone and find a way to call The Newsstand without knowing the number and without using 411. That meant some serious phone hacking, babe. It was right there, but without a phone book how were they supposed to figure out the number? Everyone was probably pretty nervous. Everyone but Case and Nines, because they already knew exactly how they were going to call that telephone sitting just ten feet away.

Case got the jump because he used his own hand-held device. Since he couldn’t mimic the 2600hz tone, he had already figured out a way to trick the phone into thinking money was being put in. Every time someone put a nickel or a dime or a quarter into a payphone, it makes a distinct tone. We’re talking millisecond time windows here, babe, but Case figured out how to emulate them with one of his old Apple II computers and in a few seconds flat he was dialing into the mainframe. I don’t know what a mainframe is, either. Think of it this way: it’s kinda like how your cell phone connects to a satellite, I think. Something like that, only with wires and shit. Old school, babe … old school shit.

Nines took the old-fashioned route, and he suffered early on. He whistled his perfect tone to trick Ma Bell, then dialed a new number that would put him in touch with an automated response system. Whenever he was prompted with a new request, Nines whistled the numbers into the speaker. People who were there said it was one of the most beautiful things they had ever heard, as if Nines was conducting a symphony instead of tricking a stupid old computer system on the fly, like all of the tones he was whistling were actually some sort of pre-orchestrated song.

Case took a more direct approach. He connected with an operator from the phone company, talking to her in a low monotone voice like he was just another Joe Blow phone company worker. “Maintenance engineer,” he said, “ring-forward to two-one-three, plus four-zero-four,” and Case just kept going like that, following some secret corporate phone company protocol that he must have lifted from some phone worker. And don’t forget the smile on his face when you’re picturing this, babe. You know Case took pleasure in this, standing there deceiving some poor old woman on the other line who probably had never even heard of hacking through telephones and Case loved every moment of it. Maybe he could whistle the different tones. Maybe he didn’t just because he got a better rush from tricking a real human being. Maybe computers weren’t good enough prey for him.

By the time Case was being redirected to the second operator, Nines was already somewhere in Russia, finding his way through some sort of backdoor, heading to Japan to be redirected to the states, whistling each number like he was reading sheet music for some unfinished fugue composed by Mozart. Nines was in his own world, with his eyes closed, running his fingers along every naked space of Ma Bell’s back, treating her the way a really good guy does to a woman he knows he doesn’t deserve — like me with you, babe, how I’m crazy about you and I can’t stop thinking about you because I want to know everything there is about you.

Case just wanted to fuck her, and Ma Bell knew it. That was why she had so many defenses up in the first place, because she knew most guys were scum and she had to be ready. When he had made it to the subway’s central hub, someone he was talking to from AT&T’s center must have gotten suspicious and routed him to an automated voice message. And when he couldn’t bypass the message with any of the usual tricks, he started to get frustrated. There had to be some way because there’s always some way to get past those voice messages and talk to a real person, but Ma Bell was wise to Case’s usual sweet talk and so she changed it up a bit on the fly, and those few seconds it took to get through the automated system was all Nines needed to sneak in through the back.

When the heavy ogre working The Newsstand picked up his phone, it took a full three seconds for Nines’ voice to reach the end of the other line. The line was stretched entirely around the globe, barely an echo even though the two were only twenty feet away from each other.

It was the most attention Nines had ever gotten. All of Case’s friends became friends of Nines, and even some of the cooler college folk who heard about it all started talking to him. The only nerd more popular than Nines on campus was a guy by the name of Joe Stevens, who was selling blue boxes in the dorms that would let people make free phone calls, and Stevens — unbeknownst to Nines — was using a recording of Nines’ 2600hz whistle to sell the damn thing. Funny how the circle of life works, babe.

Case got the respect of Nines’ friends, too, but Case didn’t want more friends. For Case, it wasn’t about gaining respect or popularity or a few free drinks at the bars on Water Street. For Case, it was all about dominance. It always had been, right from the start when he first conned his way through the first operator at Microsoft and listened in on a conference call with a young bastard by the name of Bill Gates.

When Case saw a chance to strike back, he took it.

It wasn’t until a year later, during their junior year of college, toward the end of the second semester, when D.C. was really starting to warm up and everyone was okay with walking the extra few blocks to some of the more happening bars that had two floors and lots of space for dancing. Case and Nines were always together because they had the same circle of friends, and neither really objected to it. Nines didn’t mind Case’s company and Case probably didn’t mind Nines all that much, either. But amicable terms weren’t enough to stop Case from seizing an opportunity to make his point.

Nines was crazy about one girl — just one, babe, out of everyone on campus. It was the type of girl Nines could probably have gotten, too, if he hadn’t been such a loser with women. Remember, the only reason he got laid in the dorms on occasion was when some girl was out of money and had to call home. And Nines knew this girl wasn’t like the others. Case saw it immediately the first time she walked by when they were sitting in the cafeteria.

It wasn’t until their junior year of college, toward the end of the second semester, when it was okay to start drinking heavily again because no one would have to worry about passing out in a snow bank and freezing to death. Case had enough alcohol in him that night to not give a shit about anything. He may not have necessarily considered Nines a friend by that point, but the two were, at the very least, on amicable terms. Associates, friends of friends who knew friends, I guess. Not that it mattered — Case probably would have done the same thing to his best friend, given the chance, because he loved the challenge of infiltrating and corrupting the system. Only in this case, the system was a five-foot-four sophomore majoring in broadcast journalism.

He knew exactly how to penetrate her circle of friends, had already made friends with one of them through an ex-roommate who dated her. This was what he did, on the phone and off: he figured out how to penetrate the system, and he listened and tested until he had everything perfect. By the time he had already bypassed the girl’s wingmen, Nines had made his way to the other side of the bar, trying not to watch but you know he had to glance over there once or twice. You know how that feels, don’t you, babe? Seeing someone you’re crazy about talking to someone else, probably using a horrible pick-up line to boot?

The only difference is Case didn’t need a pick-up line. He knew exactly what to tell this girl to penetrate her security system. He knew exactly what it would take to get her to come home with him and he didn’t care what happened to her afterward. Nines watched everything, and you probably have a good idea of what he was feeling. Everybody does, I think. It’s that feeling deep in your stomach that presses against your heart and squeezes the air out of your lungs so that you can only breathe in short breaths and you have to lean hard against something to keep from falling over. Nines got all of that right there, and he never really got over it.

The good news is Case eventually faded out. Ma Bell got wise to his tactics after he began gaining notoriety and she worked hard to make sure he could never get too deep inside her system again and pretty soon, everything was automated and protected a hundred times over. His notoriety at the bars started getting around, too, and women kept an eye out for him to make sure their friends wouldn’t fall for his tricks. It’s the curse of the phreak, I guess: when you get too famous for being too good, you get targeted until you’re no longer a threat. Case probably works a desk job somewhere now and occasionally drops a number to a woman at a bar, but with obsolete phreaking skills he probably doesn’t even know how to talk to a woman anymore.

Nines, in typical sensitive-guy fashion, let the entire experience traumatize him permanently. It was probably more than that, I guess, but he never really seemed to get over his own insecurities with women. It was like Case was just another guy, and what he did with women was as common as underage drinking, as if every woman was susceptible to an immediate one-nighter. And believe me, it’s not that easy, babe. Case had a talent, no doubt about it, but Nines didn’t understand that. So it came as no surprise when he was arrested a couple of years ago for tapping his girlfriend’s phone to listen in on her conversations.

I know, babe, it’s a shame. Yeah, maybe they won’t be remembered ten years from now, and cell phones have changed the whole game now so guys like Nines are pretty irrelevant. But they paved the way for every other hacker who came afterwards, and maybe they added a little intrigue to the whole thing, too. And mark my words, babe: someday you’ll be standing outside of a store somewhere using a pay phone, and you’ll find yourself whistling into the receiver. VS

Back to the winning entries ….

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