Before Napster, before computer hacking, and even before the VCR, there were “phone phreaks.” What, pray tell, are phone preaks? The phone phreaks were a group of individuals back in the 1960s who figured out a way to make free long distance calls through manipulating the flaws in Bell Telephone’s and AT&T’s extensive national network of phone lines. The tale of how many distinct and different individuals made their own “blue boxes” and “black boxes” to make phone calls is chronicled extensively in Phil Lapsley’s extremely entertaining new book “Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws who Hacked Ma Bell.”
While Lapsley does go into extensive technical detail about how the different hackers learned to circumvent the system to make free phone calls, it’s never too much that you still won’t be riveted by the story. The phone company went into a panic for obvious reasons, not only because their system which they spent billions creating was flawed and could lose them money due to hackers figuring out their system, but because the laws at the time didn’t expressly make such hacking illegal. And, most tellingly, because the Justice Department and FCC at the time didn’t agree that current laws should be interpreted to prosecute such activity. Hard to believe, but there was a time when the government was not quite the pathetic bitch to corporations as they are today.
“Exploding the Phone” is a fascinating cultural history of technology, law, and business and is especially relevant, given how this story seems to be repeated every time ordinary people figure out ways to exploit flaws in technology.