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by Archives March 8, 2006

Phreaking is to phones what hacking is to computers.

Phreaking describes the exploration, and sometimes exploitation, of the telephone networks. People who engage in phreaking are called phreaks, a fusion of the words “phone” and “freak”.

Phreaking is believed to have begun in the late 1970s with a man named Joe Engressia. Engressia was born blind, but had perfect pitch. He used to call wrong numbers just to hear the error message. He discovered phone phreaking accidentally when he noticed that whistling a specific tone caused the phone system to cut him off, but also allowed him to make long distance calls at no cost.

Phreaks uncovered many secrets behind the phone system and used them to their advantage. Over the years phreaks have created devices to trick the phone system, usually to get free phone calls and features. The most notable of these devices is the blue box.

A blue box was a device that could replicate the tones used by telephone companies to control call switching. With a little bit of work, this allowed phreaks to make free long-distance phone calls. The digitization of telephone switching has fundamentally altered the way the system operates, making the blue box obsolete. Nonetheless, this was the archetype for the phreaking tools that followed.

The second most notable phreaking tool after the blue box is the red box. Before cell phones, somewhere between the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, people used pay-per-use landlines called “pay phones.” A red box allowed phreaks to use pay phones for free. In the past, when you deposited change into a pay phone, it would play a specific tone to signal that payment had been received. Each denomination of coin made a unique sound. Phreaks learned these tones and fooled the system by playing back the tones on tape recorders or synthesizing the sound with the red boxes. They also used Radio Shack tone dialers, Hallmark audio-recording greeting cards and, in later years, PDAs to replicate the coin sounds. This type of exploit is all but completely dead in the first world, but still works in third-word nations that use analog payphones.

As you may already know, cordless phones are basically radio transmitters. This means you are broadcasting your private conversations on the radio waves. Analog cordless phones operating on the 900 MHz wavelength can easily be picked up with a radio scanner. This has caused many manufacturers to move up to the 2.4 and 5.8 GHz frequencies as well as implementing privacy features to make eavesdropping much more difficult. Eavesdropping is also much less likely on a digital cordless phone. Many analog cellular phones are also susceptible since they broadcast on the 800 MHz band, but the proliferation of digital networks has made this a near non-issue today.

Modern day phreaking commonly involves taking over and abusing Private Branch Exchanges (PBX). PBXs are private telephone switches, normally owned by larger private businesses. They coordinate calling and can provide advanced features like voice-mail and conference calling. Both features are common targets for phreaks who exploit them for fun, bragging rights, or even to keep in contact with each other.

Another modern-day pastime of some phreaks is taking over a department store’s public announcement (PA) system and speaking their mind. This might include an announcement that “as part of a special promotion, all items will be free for the next five minutes.” This can be easily accomplished from a telephone in-store. Alternatively, a phreak can call the store and use a little bit of deception to trick an employee into transferring them to the PA system.

Don’t get me wrong, not all phreaks are malicious and out to cause havoc. The malevolent ones just tend to make the most interesting reading. Motivations for phreaking vary widely. For some it is curiosity, others just want to make free calls. Some even do it to “fight the man” or to power trip.

A clever phreak could use subterfuge combined with technical know-how to do anything from redirecting phones calls (from say a phone sex line to private residence) to making charges to someone else’s account. Phreaking is only limited by imagination.well, imagination and the law, since pretty much all the activities I described are illegal in the Western world.

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