The disturbing phenomenon of Zoom-bombing has made attempts to conduct normal business (such as a city council meeting) difficult during the COVID-19 pandemic. Zoom’s simplicity makes it widely accessible yet open to security flaws.

It’s interesting to note the videoconferencing platform’s widely publicized challenges have a historical parallel: phone phreaking. The illicit pastime on which some of tech’s biggest names cut their teeth was only possible because the underlying network was so simple.

Beginning in the 1960s and well into the 1980s, phone phreaks used high-pitched noises to tap into AT&T’s long-distance system and make free calls. One of the most famous phreaks, Joe Engressia, was able to whistle his way to free calls. Another phreaking legend, John T. Draper, used a cereal box whistle, earning him the nickname Captain Crunch. Others used a homemade device called a “blue box” to emit the necessary sounds.

Phone phreaking goes mainstream

In 1971, Esquire published “Secrets of the Little Blue Box,” an article that inspired a college-age Steve Wozniak to introduce Steve Jobs to phreaking, long before their Apple days. The article explained how AT&T’s long-distance switching system was based on 12 combinations of six master tones. Readers may recall sometimes hearing these tones after dialing a long-distance number.

The two-tone combinations quickly became public knowledge, and—as Esquire pointed out—weren’t that hard to duplicate on an electric organ. Suddenly, it became easy to call a random pay phone in the middle of London and talk to the stranger walking by who happened to pick up. Or to gather a bunch of your phreaking friends for an all-night teleconference.

That doesn’t sound much different than your last Zoom happy hour, does it?

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Photo: Piotr Bieniecki / Shutterstock

Kate Johanns

Posted by Kate Johanns

Kate Johanns is a communications professional and freelance writer with more than 13 years of experience in publishing and marketing.

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