Best Cyber Security

What is Phreaking?

Phreaking, is a commonly misused term, and is frequently confused with hacking.

What is phreaking? One of the greatest mysteries in the modern hacker space is how to explain why so many brilliant and otherwise sane people believe that somehow phreaking itself is cool and a legitimate thing for their kids to be interested in.

First and foremost, Phreaking is not just "speakerphone hacking." That would be like saying to a space-faring lunatic that his phreaking skills consist in hacking spaceship communicator modules. Phreaking does involve speakerphone hacking (and as we will soon see, perhaps not enough of it, given that the vast majority of phreaks are proficient at simply talking on the phone), but it also encompasses everything from "clever network security tricks" (defined later in this paper) to engineering internships and such.

What is Phone Phreaking?

Phone Phreaking, the practice of tricking a telephone carrier into supplying free or otherwise "unfair" telephone service to a calling party, is the original root of the hacker-activist idea of "Unfair" in Hacker Culture. It's the idea that through the practice of technological tactics, activists can gain some competitive advantage over their enemies by seeing to it that the rules of society are bent to favor the activist, to the benefit of everyone in general.

There are lots of different kinds of phreaking; like hacking in general, there's a lot of bad rep because some people are pretending to be evil. Those who are actually doing it are generally not known as evil, and the good guys don't really get a good name. For the most part, when we talk about phreaking, we talk about cracking telephone systems, messing with modem jammers, and making tapes. There is a relatively large community of crackers that has nothing to do with hackers or cracking or piracy or anything of the sort.

As a recap, they call it phreaking, but it's not really about hacking or cracking. It's more about using a computer to perform a function it was never intended to perform. It's like a guy who hacks into a telephone system to talk with women he's never met, or a guy who goes into the electrical power substation to get to the control panels, or even the guy who uses a simple modulator to talk to 911 from a payphone.

This is a fine place to start. We don't want to overwhelm you, but the section below has some detail and background that will help give you a firm grasp on the history of phreaking and how you can implement it into your computer security. We have created an overview page with more in-depth details on phreaking, and you can skip straight to it if you wish. We also suggest reading the post on baudot decoding.

Phreaking started as a hobby/passion for many. Many wonderful people that contributed to what is known today as a "culture" within the hacker community. A programmer or a hacker who made a whole day or weekend worthwhile just by hanging out with them and talking. 

Hardware and Software manipulation

Phreaking is a form of eavesdropping or intrusion that allows the user to manipulate the hardware and software of a computer or network. There is no definitive definition of phreaking, which means there is no hard and fast "technique" that is required to be a "phreak". Phreaking involves just about anything, but it is a term that tends to be used to describe electronic communication using methods of eavesdropping. Today, phreaking may sometimes be used interchangeably with other forms of computer hacking. However, it is possible for people with no hacking experience to engage in these activities, and some of these activities can be dangerous.

What were phreaking's roots?

Phreaking came from radio. In its purest form, phreaking was the practice of trying to intercept signals being sent on the radio by radio amateurs and sending them back at them in the form of audio beeps. If an amateur radio operator was going to place a call, he or she would call a prefix in the format of CW. This prefix would then be repeated, or "baudot" into the airwaves to be intercepted by the receiving station. When the stations being called were unable to receive the call, they would take the "baudot" data, or the beeps, and play it back to their own station. The listening stations would simply replay the signal.

Note: beeping is a shortwave technique for carrying data over the radio. There were several reasons for this. The first was to compensate for the fact that stations on the radio did not transmit regularly, and were spaced out over large areas. A message that could not be received all the way across the country would instead be beeped and sent by the radio to the station that was able to receive it.

What made phreaking illegal?

In 1985, radio equipment manufacturers, frustrated with amateur radio enthusiasts bypassing their security and communicating via the medium, began producing radios that were deliberately vulnerable to remote control. Called "broadband radios", these radios allowed the operator to "baudot" control signals and send them to the victim's machine (by which we mean the person's computer). At this point, the authorities stepped in and banned their manufacture and sale. 

In the USA, radio equipment dealerships could no longer sell radios capable of beeping over the air. Unfortunately, beeping cannot be changed at the receiver. Thus the owners of these beeping radios had no recourse but to keep their equipment and (rather tragically) dispose of the modified devices by throwing them in the trash. Even if they could change the beeps, it was nearly impossible to remove the hardware, the antennas and even the batteries. Thus the hobbyist, baudot radio enthusiasts of the world (they are often called "hackers") were banned from using a common method for controlling the power supply of their machines.

What were the goals of phreaking?

Aside from simply being a hobby, phreaking was the goal of those who were involved. It was considered very risky, because it involved the use of computer hacking techniques and led to the compromise of computer systems. However, it was also considered to be more than simply a novelty; many people were able to break into computer systems and see things that could not otherwise be obtained.

The term "phreaking", or technically "carrier tapping", is generally used to refer to any non-continuous piece of equipment that has the ability to pick up signals from another device. This term comes from the practice of "carrier hopping", in which a home stereo could detect the signal from another device. The connotation of "hacking" is an unfortunate necessity. The term's more positive applications range from ethical or anti-copying in the online environment, the less targeted information collection and the secure phone networks, to the more, well, secret and clandestine nature of a huge chunk of the amateur hacker community. For my part, phreaking strikes me as a badge of honor. It is a defiant act of defense and intelligence in our technology-obsessed culture, an act of rejection of the prevailing power relations in society and of the dominant culture's subservience to the State. It is also an act of rebellion against the establishment, which tries to equate everything with security.

carrier-tapping

carrier-hop

traffic-light jammer

Most modern communications devices work in a hierarchical system, with each bit of information being transmitted at one of a series of "pipes" or "interconnects". The latest systems rely on a much more complicated set of chips in order to function. The best known of these is the System/38 operating system. This used a System/38 terminal to deal with non-basic numbers, since most machines had no way of putting numbers onto the screen. Since it was an older operating system, you needed an older terminal in order to use it.