“Damn kids!” was the subtext of several AT&T security memos in the 60s and 70s about college students caught breaking into the company’s phone network. It’s a common reaction among victims of hacker pranks. One could easily imagine, in a much more recent instance, former President George W. Bush feeling the same way about a hacker codenamed Guccifer entering Bush’s email account and revealing his self-portraits to the world.
But those exact words were spoken by Phil Lapsley, the author of Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws Who Hacked Ma Bell, when he discovered that the Kindle edition of his book, which follows the rise and fall of phone hacking, had been stripped of its digital rights management technologies and posted on a free download site. After spending so much time in the company of hackers for his book, he was taken aback at being on the receiving end of a hack. “Well now what do I do?” he thought. “Just for a moment there, I was the president of AT&T,” he recounts over the phone.
Lapsley actually has a lot of positive things to say about hackers. A particular variety of them called phone phreaks caught his attention as a self-described “geeky kid” seventh-grader in 1978. A friend told him about a group of people who were surreptitiously exploring the sprawling AT&T telephone system, using what were called blue boxes, which could be assembled with parts from any local electronics store. During the next couple of decades, he couldn’t shake his obsession with phone phreaking, even while building a career as a successful engineer and founder of two technology companies. “It was this thing in the back of my mind,” he explains. “In a lot of ways this book represents me scratching a 30-year-old itch.”
It took Lapsley three years to track down and interview the main people involved in phone phreaking for Exploding the Phone. First, he had to coax stories from quirky ex-hackers reluctant to admit having once pursued an illegal hobby. Sometimes, extreme measures were in order. One phreak named John Draper (codename: Captain Crunch) insisted on a piggyback ride before he would spill about his long history of phreaking. (Draper is one of the original phreaks made famous by Ron Rosenbaum’s 1971 Esquire article “Secrets of the Little Blue Box.”) Lapsley acquiesced to his demand, of course.
The other part of Lapsley’s reporting involved contacting the authorities who monitored the phreaks: security staff from AT&T and the FBI. He interviewed ex-agents from both organizations, and did the one thing that might be worse than carrying a grown man on your back in exchange for an interview: filling out 400 Freedom of Information Act requests. It took the government from three months to three years to respond to them.
Lapsely’s thoroughness in researching this shadowy subculture paid off, though, allowing him to create a rich and surprising history out of stories of phone phreak feats and cat-and-mouse games with the police. The book covers the founding of the Bell Telephone Company, and follows the building of its complex network of long-distance and local lines, later the playground of phone phreaks. Substantial descriptions of phone appurtenances like trunk lines, switching systems and radio transmissions, dot the book, but Lapsley holds our attention throughout by focusing on the people behind the machinery.
One of the most compelling threads traces the development of laws against phone network hacking that were gradually being enforced beginning in the late 1960s. Meanwhile, Lapsley tells us in the book, the phreaks knew that breaking into the phone system was illegal, but they also knew that the law had not yet caught up to their innovations; they nearly had free rein. For Lapsley, this was a good thing. “Curiosity shouldn’t be a crime; crime should be a crime,” he asserts. Asked what he thinks we could glean about contemporary hacking from studying phone phreaks, he says firmly that society should learn to nurture rather than punish curious people, by pushing their curiosity in directions helpful for society. He points to the case of Aaron Swartz as an example of what could go wrong if technological creativity is penalized too harshly.
Lapsley also has a trump card in his pocket for any doubters: a potent example of phone hacking antics gone right. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak not only phone phreaked while in college, but together they also made and sold blue boxes. In the introduction to Exploding the Phone, Wozniak describes his phreaking as a prerequisite for his later work. “[Steve Jobs] once said that Apple wouldn’t have existed without the blue box, and I agree,” he writes. Another agreement that Lapsley, Wozniak, and everyone reading this on an electronic device would likely make: if the phone company was ripped off a few times in the process of creating computer history, it was a small price to pay.
Alexia Nader is a freelance writer and book reviewer who lives in New York. Her work has appeared on the websites of The New Yorker, The Nation, and Smithsonian.