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Why Do They Spell Phishing With ‘ph?’ An Unlikely Homage

Shutterstock/Piotr Bieniecki

Back in the counter-culture days of the U.S., a group of people developed an obsession with telephone systems. It gave us the first hackers, the weird spelling of phishing, and Apple, Inc.

Gurus and Freaks

The English language is voracious. It absorbs words from other languages like a linguistic version of the Borg. The assimilated words sometimes stay true—or at least, close—to their original meanings like entrepreneur (French), glitz (Yiddish), and moped (Swedish). But often the word mutates into something rather different.

The original meaning of guru (Sanskrit) is someone considered a master of a spiritual or religious doctrine, especially if they are a teacher, guide, and mentor to others. In modern English, we use the word guru to mean someone who knows all there is about a particular topic. In common parlance, it’s a synonym for expert (English from Latin), ace (English slang), and dab hand (Scottish).

Not content with pinching words from other languages, English has a habit of cannibalizing itself. Back in the 1960s freak was used in the way we use guru today. In one context freak meant an oddball, something or someone very different from the norm. But in slang or casual usage, it meant exactly what guru means to us now: someone driven to find out all they can about their topic of interest.

If you overheard Mary tell Sue, “Don’t date that guy, he’s a freak!” you wouldn’t be pleased. If someone came to you and said “I mentioned to Frank I was starting to explore blues music. He told me to speak to you because you’re a complete blues freak,” you’d take it as a compliment.

But in that topsy-turvy time of the late 1960s, freak was about to take on a whole new meaning.

Stick it to the Man

As the 1960s came to an end the U.S. was undergoing convulsions. The era of love and peace had come to a shuddering halt with the realization that long hair, beads, and goodwill hadn’t changed the world. The hugely unpopular Vietnam war was still raging. Protestors took to the streets, with up to 100,000 being involved in one rally in 1967.

Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights movement spokesperson and leader, was assassinated in April 1968. A wave of civil disturbance and protests raced across the country. Senator Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in June the same year. Student protests were rife, opposing the Vietnam war, racism, and capitalism and promoting equality, civil rights, and environmentalism.

The anti-establishment counter-culture was in full swing globally, and in the U.S. it found a willing audience in a disenchanted youth, marginalized minorities, and malcontented and rebellious student bodies.

In 1968, right in the middle of this maelstrom of social turbulence, John Draper was honorably discharged from the United States Air Force. He had enlisted in 1964 to work with RADAR and had worked in electronics throughout his service period. While he was stationed at a base in Alaska he figured out a way to dupe the local switchboard into providing free calls. He openly shared this trick with his fellow airmen.

Draper’s character naturally led him to question and sidestep authority, and to work a system to his advantage. He took to the counterculture movement like a duck to water. In a period when it was considered hip to be anti-establishment and right-on to flirt with lawbreaking—especially if you were getting something for free out of a system that you considered corrupt or unfair—Draper felt right at home.

Like-Minded Souls

While he was working for National Semiconductor, Draper used his spare time to set up and run a pirate radio station using a transmitter he built himself. On one broadcast he gave out a telephone number and asked for anyone listening to ring him. He wanted listeners to ring him so that he could understand his signal strength and reception in different areas.

One person who rang him identified himself as Dennie. His full name was Dennis Dan Teresi, now known as Dennis Terry. He was interested in pirate radio too. Draper and Dennie discussed radio, music, and electronics. Dennie was particularly excited to discover that Draper was a skilled electronics engineer. It was obvious that Draper and Dennie were kindred spirits. Dennie invited Draper over to carry on their discussions and to meet some friends.

Meet the Phreaks

Dennie and his friends had also found a way to get free phone calls. It didn’t rely on knowing the unique quirks of a particular exchange in the way that Draper’s trick in Alaska had. They’d hit upon a way to get free long-distance calls over any Bell System telephone system. Because Bell had an effective monopoly on telephone systems in the U.S. every telephone exchange was a Bell system. So they could place unrestricted free calls all over the U.S. and to many places overseas.

They were obsessed with telephone systems and finding out more and more tricks and exploits. They were phone freaks. Someone noticed that phone and freak both begin with the same sound, and the term phreak was coined. They called themselves phreaks and named their clandestine activities phreaking.

The trick was to use tones. Bell System had engineered their systems to use control tones that were sent along the same trunks and channels that carried callers’ voices. These were different from the dual-tone multi-frequency (DTMF) tones that touch-dial handsets used. By sending the appropriate tones at the right time and in the right sequence you could convince the equipment at the other end that you were another piece of equipment. And that equipment would accept instructions from you.

One of the people present at the first meeting was called Jimmy. He was also blind. he demonstrated this technique to Draper by playing tones from an electronic organ into a handset and obtaining a long-distance line.

Another phreak called Josef Carl Engressia, Jr., who went by the moniker Joybubbles, had discovered at age seven that you could dial a number by tapping the on/off-hook switches in the handset cradle once for number one, twice for number two, and so on. The following year Joybubbles, who was born blind and had perfect pitch, found out by accident that he could control the phone system by whistling.

If John Draper could use his electronics knowledge to make a device that generated the appropriate multi-frequency control tones, anyone—with suitable instruction—would be able to make free calls, set up unofficial conference-calls for phreaks to hang out on, and to set up globe-spanning connections. In no time at all, Draper succeeded. He used components sourced from specialist suppliers of spare parts for telephone repairs.

His little box planted the seed for the surge in interest in phreaking.

The First Phreaking Box

Surprisingly, it wasn’t the first time this had been done. But the previous attempt was kept hush-hush and only a few people knew about it. In 1960 Ralph Barclay was attending Washington State University. He spotted the week-old November issue of The Bell System Technical Journal. The cover listed the articles inside. One of them was sufficiently intriguing to make him sit down and start reading. It was called Signal Systems for Control of Telephone Switching.

He read the entire 63-page article and realized that with the right components and a little social engineering chit-chat to Bell’s public-facing operators and “inward” operators—who only dealt with queries from public-facing operators and Bell engineers—he could make free long-distance calls.

Three weeks later on a trip home, using parts from He used the parts from two old magneto phones that he inherited from a neighbor, Barclay built the first phreaking box over a weekend. It had a rotary dial and looked clunky, but it worked.

Barclay soon discovered that the type of signaling he was using—single-frequency— was being replaced in the field by multi-frequency signaling. He started on version two over the Christmas break. He worked on the second version off and on until Easter. Version two still had a rotary dial but this was augmented by a push-button keypad. The keys were scavenged from an old mechanical adding machine. The metal box that housed his creation was painted blue.

Outside of Barclay’s dormitory—where it was very popular indeed—and a few other close friends, the blue box was a secret. But a secret that was known in the phreaking community.

John Draper and his friends had devised and created a smaller, lighter, and easier to use modern take on the almost mythical blue box. None of Draper’s boxes were blue. But out of respect for Barclay, they were all called blue boxes.

The Impact of Draper’s Box

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Even if you weren’t interested in telephones and telephone systems in the slightest—let alone wanted to be a phone freak—for many, the chance of free long-distance calls was a pull too strong to resist. There was a ready-made market for Draper’s blue boxes.

Most students study at universities away from home. They want to ring their families and friends. With the prevalent counter-culture anti-establishment mood of the time, beating the system and getting free calls was risque enough to have a certain cache about it—as well as saving money—without being a flat-out serious crime. At least, in the students’ eyes. They lapped up the blue boxes. They were still called blue boxes despite hardly any of them being blue.

Then Draper and Joybubbles made a discovery. A promotional campaign by the Cap’n Crunch breakfast cereal gave away plastic bosun’s whistles in the cereal boxes. They produced a tone of precisely 2600 Hz. That tone would switch a long-distance trunk into operator mode. This opened up a whole new set of previously locked-away functionality for the phreaks to explore and exploit. Draper became known as Cap’n Crunch.

Like Joybubbles’ childhood trick of tapping the on/off-hook switches to dial a number, you could now whistle the number you wanted to dial. One toot for one, two toots for two, and so on. University campuses the length and breadth of the U.S. were positively resonating at 2600 Hz.

Phreaking started to get news coverage. Ron Rosenbaum wrote a now-famous article for the October 1971 edition of Esquire magazine. Somewhat naively, many of the phreaks—Draper and Joybubbles among them—agreed to do interviews, give demonstrations, and explain the methods, techniques, and philosophy of the phreaking scene. The article was titled Secrets of the Little Blue Box.

It changed everything.

The Man Sticks It Back

Draper was arrested early in 1972 and charged under Title 18. Section 1343 of the U.S. Code: Fraud by wire, or television, which is a felony. A few months later Draper entered a plea of nolo contendere, received a sentence of five years probation, and a USD 1000 fine.

Joybubbles was also arrested following an undercover sting led to a tap being placed on his home phone. He was given two 30 day sentences for malicious mischief. The sentences were suspended by the judge on the understanding that Joybubbles solemnly promised never to play with telephones again.

The Two Steves

The Esquire article caught the eye and fired the imagination of Steve Wozniak, a college dropout in his early 20s. He had struck up a friendship with a teenager called Steve Jobs, who shared his passion for programming and building electronic devices.

An unauthorized visit to the technical library at the then-named Stanford Linear Accelerator Center gave Wozniak and Jobs proof that what they’d read in Esquire was true. In the November 1954 issue of The Bell System Technical Journal was an article titled In-Band Single-Frequency Signaling. This was the November 1954 edition of the journal. It was printed six years before the 1960 issue that inspired Ralph Barclay. But old as it was, it gave Wozniak and Jobs all the tones and frequencies to start, route, and end calls. They could make their own modern version of the blue box.

The first business endeavor between the two founders of Apple, Inc. was the production and sale of blue boxes. Each of the Steves is on record saying that if it hadn’t been for their blue box days, Apple wouldn’t exist. Building blue boxes showed them that they could use Wozniak’s technical know-how and Jobs’ drive and salesmanship to design an item, overcome technical difficulties, get something into production, and sell it.

Computers, Meanwhile

It was the dawning of the age of networked computer systems. The Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) project, the predecessor of the internet, was started in 1966. The first packet-switched wide-area network connection (WAN) was established on Oct. 29, 1969, between equipment installed at the University of California, Los Angeles and the Stanford Research Institute.

With the rise of computer networks providing a new outlet for the inquiring minds of the phreaks, and the introduction of a new telephone system signaling method—out-of-band signaling took over from in-band signaling—the blue box slowly fell out of favor.

Networks and computers provided a new playground for those who wanted to explore complex systems covertly, and without permission. It was the birth of the hacker era.

The Legacy of the Phreaks

2600: The Hacker Quarterly is a magazine that was launched in 1984. It is named for the 2600 Hz tone that acquired a long-distance trunk, and the pitch of the plastic bosun’s whistle that gave Cap’n Crunch his nickname.

As an homage to the phreak proto-hackers, the “ph” was appropriated from phreaks and replaced the “f” in fishing to give us phishing. So the name of the modern-day cyberattacks that use fraudulent emails to coerce victims into clicking malicious links and opening infected attachments tips its hat back to the phreaks of the 1906s.

Hacking and phreaking crossed over when a German programmer named Stefan Scheytt released a blue boxing program for MS-DOS computers called BlueBEEP. It was written in Pascal and was distributed freely on hacking forums from 1993 onward.

Blue boxing isn’t dead! Project MF hosts a publicly accessible simulation of an old in-band signaling telephone system. You can blue box into it and play around—legally. They even provide the details to make a really fancy blue box based on an Arduino single-board computer.

And Apple, Inc. is still trading and seems to be doing well.

Dave McKay Dave McKay
Dave McKay first used computers in the industry when punched paper tape was in vogue and he has been programming ever since. His use of computers pre-dates the birth of the PC and the public release of Unix. He has programmed in everything from 6502 assembly to Lisp, and from Forth to C#. He is now a technology journalist and independent Data Protection and Compliance consultant. Read Full Bio »

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