If you’re old enough to remember when AT&T was “Ma Bell”, then you may remember blowing on a Capt’ Crunch toy whistle to hack a free call from a pay phone.
Times have changed, and seizing a trunk to steal a long distance call from a pay phone is as obsolete as relying on AT&T to provide reliable telecom service. But the concept behind 2600 is as relevent as ever. We had the good fortune to interview Emmanuel Goldstein, a co-founder of 2600 magazine. 2600 is a watershed in the history of hacking, “phone phreaking” and the misappropriation of old technology.
A stop by the 2600 van at Maker Fair will let you listen to recordings of early hackers using “blue boxing” to talk to inward operators and internal offices within the phone company to discover shortcuts and hacks. For kids of a certain age, the Ma Bell van is instantly recognizable. To see one “hacked” by 2600 is a real treat! Read the interveiw with Emmanuel after the photo and take a trip through the history of hacking.
Parallel Feed: Can you tell us how 2600 got started?
Emmanuel Goldstein: Well, we started as just a bit of mischief, something we thought maybe a couple dozen people would enjoy reading. We didn’t know where it was going to go…but it just grew and grew. Now we’re on newsstands everywhere, we’re on Kindle…its gotten really huge. We started from humble beginnings but it grew into much more.
PF: When would you say that 2600 went from being an underground ‘zine to a more mainstream phenomenon?
EG: Well, we started as an underground magazine in 1984. We had the 8.5 x 11 format through 1986. In 1987, we went to the magazine format, and in 1988 we went quarterly. It was about this time that we started appearing on newsstands and in bookstores. I think that was when we really went mainstream.
PF: How would you say 2600 contributed to the idea among people that they could reject, change or enhance what was being offered to them by companies or by society in general?
EG: I think when we started publishing letters, and establishing a dialouge with readers, and people started renewing their subscriptions. We started making ourselves known in the security world, the hacker world, I think it was then that we actually began to effect that change to some degree. And also, when we started doing the radio show in ‘88 I think that was important because it went out to a lot of people who didn’t know there were hackers out there, or what technology was all about. It helped people to see the technology through our eyes. And it’s important, you know, to not just believe the instructions, or see things through the corporate view, but to listen to people who are actually playing with these things.
PF: Cool. It’s interesting to see how telecom has changed. Pay phones are obsolete, and the once omnipotent “Ma Bell” has morphed into a company whose name is synonymous with dropped calls. Where do you see 2600’s place in today’s world?
EG: Oddly enough, hackers seem to have been the constant throughout all of this. I mean, we precipitate change, and we’re always around when the technology changes. So I think our viewpoint has stayed the same from the beginning until now. And of course, the technology has changed radically., and what you can do with that technology. I mean, back in the day, making free phone calls was a big deal. Now, it’s commonplace. Having access to a Unix system was unheard of, and now everybody has that so…In that way things have really changed. But we’re still hacking, still thinking of various tricks to pull…
PF: So the philosophy has persevered.
EG: Sure. The philosophy, the hacker spirit is still there. Always will be.
PF: Can you take us through a phone hack, circa late ‘80’s?
EG: Well, by that time, in the late ‘80’s, it was kind of dying out in this country. It still could happen, if you called to some remote areas. If you used systems that had inband signaling. That’s a system where they send tones over the same voice path as you send voice. You could hear the tones of the long- distance call being processed. So what you would do is, make a long-distance call…and blow 2600 hertz down the line. What happens then is the trunk line disconnects, and it’s just left hanging open. Next what you’d do is send MF tones, multi-frequency tones. Not touch-tones: similar but different… used by internal phone company routing in the old days. You’d start with a KP tone: then your routing number, which was either your phone number or your country code. End it with the start button and…yeah. Maybe it would go through.
EG: That was called “blue boxing”. What was amazing about blue boxing was that it wasn’t just limited to phone calls. You could use it to route into the phone system itself: Talk to inward operators, talk to internal offices. You could explore and find all kinds of shortcuts and tricks.
PF: And that’s what we’re listening to right now from the 2600 van, some recordings of of “phone phreakers” inside the system sending tones and talking to operators. What an exciting time that was.
Emmanuel, thank you for this trip down memory lane!