I don’t normally create weblog entries consisting of a smattering of opinion followed by a link elsewhere. I consider this lazy and barely putting myself above a shell script in terms of enhancing your online time and experience. But sometimes, you just have to hand it to someone and also take some time to hold up for regard a project you particularly admire.
Phil Lapsley has been spending the last couple of years on a book that will be a, but I declare will be the, history of Phone Phreaking. It’s a subject that has gotten a number of magazine articles, once captured the hearts of generations of technically minded people, and has enjoyed various ups and downs in popularity and regard. What it has not enjoyed, however, is a from-all-sides historical overview, assimilating the myths and legends and then scoring them out with research. Normally, it takes a very long time before “serious” historians enmesh themselves with the telling of events, and with the breakup of the Ma Bell telephone system now 24 years hence, it was certainly getting on that time.
I’ve hinted at Phil’s work previously, and was happy enough to be present for two presentations he’s given regarding his work, one at the Vintage Computer Festival and one at The Last Hope. The Last Hope presentation can be enjoyed at this link, although sadly just in mp3 form; you really need the slides to understand all that he’s talking about. As a bonus, you can hear my lovingly tender introduction.
Recently Phil opened up a website related to his project and upcoming book, historyofphonephreaking.org. That’s the relevant link. But let me point you to a number of postings on this page which will be of interest to anyone who calls themselves interested in Phone Phreaking history.
Concurrently to his book and speaking, Phil has been making available various artifacts that are precious heirlooms related to Phreaks. Specifically:
- Signaling Systems for Control of Telephone Switching by Breen and Dahlbom, November 1960. As Phil notes, the documentation that is considered to have given away the keys to the kingdom and laid bare the inner workings of phone signaling.
- Secrets of the Little Blue Box by Ron Rosenbaum, a 1971 magazine article which broke wide the story of Phreaking, and is also resented by those who felt the game was up by this article being published. They were, it turns out, sort of right, although the machine did take a while to grind truly to a halt. It is one thing to read this article transcribed to text as it appeared in BBSes and another to see it properly laid out as it was originally presented.
- General Switching Plan for Telephone Service A 1930 white paper which shows how many years in the making the switching systems of the modern era were; area codes were still 17 years away when this was written.
But Phil has outdone himself. See now, all and sundry, the Youth International Party Line (YIPL) / Technological American Party (TAP) New York FBI files!
In the process of researching this book, he has issued hundreds of Freedom of Information Act requests for phone phreak and law enforcement information, going back significant amounts of years. (He has also been speaking to the subjects of this information, on both sides). And this new release really brings it home to me; it’s one thing to think they’re out to get you, and yet another to be shown the process of them being out to get you.
The pages are fascinating. Reprints of TAP articles (which some people might not have seen before) as well as redacted information, that classic indicator of some fun stuff being covered. You can see hand-wringing over nuclear bomb information, the suggestion of Toll Fraud arrests being made. It’s a fun little treasure trove.
As a bonus, Phil gives us a tutorial on how to read an FBI file, so you understand what the documents mean and what all the codes are. It’s a lifesaver for the denser parts. Phil has previously covered how to do FOIA requests and he also gave a talk on the subject as well.
While I do not cherish this story of Phreaking FBI Files being covered by the likes of BoingBoing and their consistent “let’s focus on the entirely wrong thing and hear how Cory thinks this all relates to himself” approach, I would gladly grit my teeth perpetually if it led to one more old man, or one more old man’s family contacting Phil and giving him yet another perspective on this century-long, fascinating history. So get cracking, web beavers. I’ll be filling out my own FOIA request in the meantime.
Categorised as: computer history
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