October 1971 | Phone Phreaking

 John "Captain Crunch" Draper
 

“Hello again. This is Captain Crunch. You are speaking to me on a toll-free loop-around in Portland, Oregon. Do you know what a toll-free loop around is? I’ll tell you. Your voice is looping around in a 4A switching machine up there in Canada, zipping back down to me. My voice is looping around up there and back down to you. And it can’t ever cost anyone money. The phone phreaks and I have compiled a list of many, many of these numbers. You would be surprised if you saw the list. I could show you. But I won’t. I’m out of that now. I’m not out to screw Ma Bell. I know better. If I do anything it’s for the pure knowledge of the System.”

-John T. Draper, alias Captain Crunch, 1971*

Phone phreaking joined the American lexicon in October 1971 when Ron Rosenbaum published his article “Secrets of the Little Blue Box” in Esquire magazine. Rosenbaum revealed a covert world of quirky characters intent on exploring (and exploiting) the mysteries of AT&T’s telephone network. In the pre-digital age, these “phreakers” used multi-frequency tones, emitted by so-called blue boxes, to fool the phone system into thinking they were operators so they could make calls to anywhere in the world for free.

Before co-founding Apple, Steve Jobs and Steve Wosniak sold their own brand of “blue boxes” to Berkeley co-eds. Jobs once said, “if we hadn’t built blue boxes, there would have been no Apple.” Phreakers were the precursors to early computer hackers testing the boundaries of new technology. While most phreakers were motivated by curiosity rather than greed, this innocence quickly eroded as the moneymaking potential of cybercrime became evident. Even in the golden age of phreaking, law enforcement was learning the ins and outs of the new tech crime and working with the courts to curtail it.

John Draper of California was one of the quirkiest characters in Rosenbaum’s story, he called himself “Captain Crunch” after the toy whistle found in Cap’n Crunch cereal that emitted a 2600 hertz tone—the perfect tone for phreaking a line. Captain Crunch was one of the first of this new breed of tech criminals to get arrested. In May of 1972, FBI agents arrested Draper for wire fraud as he pulled up to a public pay phone in his Volkswagen van. Draper’s FBI file gives a hint as to the groundbreaking nature of Rosenbaum’s article— a copy of the article was attached to Draper’s arrest report and sent along to FBI Headquarters.

 

*As quoted in Ron Rosenbaum’s “Secrets of the Little Blue Box,” Esquire, October 1971. For more information about phone phreaking, read Phil Lapsley’s Exploding the Phone.