What is a Phone Phreak?

Malcolm Tatum

Phone phreaks are individuals who make up a subculture that experiment with the use of an application of telecommunications activity that is known as phreaking. Essentially, a phone phreak will attempt to identify and manipulate various audio frequencies associated with the tones that are used to provide a variety of services to telephone customers. In more recent years, the technology of the phone phreak has extended to attempts to also make use of audio components as part of a process to study and identify electronic hacking with computer systems and servers.

Steve Jobs founded Apple Computers with Steve Wozniak.
Steve Jobs founded Apple Computers with Steve Wozniak.

The exact origins of the phone phreak are debated, although there is general agreement that the art of phreaking was born during the middle of the 20th century. As more and more telephone service providers began to deploy automatic switching for most calls rather than relying on manual switching by an operator. Automatic switching involved the use of audio signaling that allowed phone switches to pick up on a series of tones in order to properly process the direct dialed called.

In the late 1950s, a young man named Joe Engressia, later known as Joybubbles, found that he was able to whistle a tone that would allow him to grab a trunk or phone line. He notified his local phone company in an attempt to learn what had occurred. While he did not attempt to make use of this talent at first, in later years he was often cited as making use of his phreaking abilities.

During the remainder of the 20th century, other phreakers emerged, along with groups of phone phreaks who banded together and continued to uncover security risks in telephone systems. More than one phone phreak received national attention, with some of them moving on to become innovators in the development of home computers. Two notable phone phreak celebrities were Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, who founded Apple Computers.

The era of the phreaker came to an end in the continental United States during 2006, when the last older switch using MF-signal style technology was replaced with T1 carrier technology. To date, there has not been an ability to manipulate current automated switching equipment. This means that unless some process is discovered that allows individuals to capture control of these more secure phone trunks, the legacy of the phone phreak can be considered complete.

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