Twilight of the Phreaks: The Fates of the 10 Best Early Hackers
The first waves of proto-hackers emerged in the 1960s, figuring out how to scam and surf the only truly massive electronic network in existence at the time: the telephone system.
For decades, pranksters, nerds, and anarchists shared the latest ways to fool AT&T’s automated systems into giving them free calls and unapproved access. They gave themselves weird nicknames and rarely met in person. Until well into the 1980s, waves of system-crackers built little DIY devices (“blue boxes”) that could emulate phone-company signaling tones. It was all incredibly illegal and didn’t come with any video tutorials.
But what happens to a tech community when it grows up? Like, really grows up and its members start pushing 60 and 70? We checked in on the current status of 10 of the greatest phreaks and found a spread of fates that range from global fame to horrifying decay.
10. John Draper (aka “Captain Crunch”)
Who he was: One of the progenitors and all-time greats. Draper started operating in the 60s and was an uncanny genius at tinkering with whistle-tone machinery (including toy whistles from Cap’n Crunch cereal boxes, ergo his nickname). He was an inspiration to a whole generation of phreaks, including a young Steve Wozniak (we’ll get to him later). He went on to program IBM’s first word processor, EasyWriter, by longhand during one of his multiple stints in prison for phone fraud.
Where he is now: In really bad shape. Years of legal troubles and poor business decisions have left the Captain near-homeless in Southern California, chronically unemployed and missing most of his teeth. He’s a regular Twitter user, although he uses his account largely to rail at people who’ve wronged him and beg for help (he recently left a weird series of tweets for Steve Wozniak, asking him to act as a guarantor on a new apartment lease, for example). That said, he still has supporters — a ‘Saving Captain Crunch’ fundraising campaign helped him get crucial medical help in 2010, and he’s still collecting donations via his blog.
9. Steve Wozniak (aka “Berkeley Blue”)
Who he was: A geeky kid who found out about Captain Crunch thanks to a landmark 1971 Esquire article about phreaking, brought him to his dorm room, and got a tutorial on how to build a tone-creating device. He and his pal, Steve Jobs, turned that knowledge into a small black-market business on their UC-Berkeley campus.
Where he is now: Well, he’s Steve Wozniak. Since he ended his days at Apple, he’s just been a legendary multi-millionaire-about-town who spends his days promoting entrepreneurship and getting paid to do speaking engagements. He also occasionally helps out the Captain by sending him computer equipment.
8. Joe Engressia
Who he was: The first of the phreaks. As a blind seven-year-old boy with perfect pitch and a history of sexual abuse, he accidentally figured out how to whistle a tone that disrupted phone calls. His experimentation became a party trick, then a phenomenon. He was never much of an anti-establishment figure, though, and eventually worked for Ma Bell before leaving out of disillusionment.
Where he is now: Dead, but beloved — and even weirder in his latter years. He decided that he would become a permanent five-year-old — no, seriously — and legally changed his name to “Joybubbles.” He ordained himself as a minister in his self-made “Church of Eternal Childhood,” lived off of social security checks, and had a children’s story-time show on an answering machine at the number +1 206-FEELING. There’s a documentary about him currently in the works by artist Rachel Morrisson. You can listen to excerpts now by calling 718-362-9578, or perhaps by whistling those tones into your nearest payphone.
7. Patrick K. Kroupa (aka “Lord Digital”)
Who he was: A young late-comer to the phreaking scene who got involved with the anarcho-political wing of the phreaking movement, hanging out with members of Abbie Hoffman’s Yippie movement. He used his phreaking knowledge to become an early pioneer in computer hacking, becoming a prominent member of legendary hacker group Legion of Doom and later making lots of cash in the 90s dot-com market.
Where he is now: Kroupa is an incredibly weird dude. He got hooked on heroin in the 90s and got clean through the help of the hallucinogenic drug ibogaine. After a bunch of world traveling, he became a high priest in the Slovenian “Sacrament of Transition” and preaches the use of mind-altering drugs at Excited Delirium, his website.
6. Kevin Poulsen (aka “Dark Dante”)
Adrian Lamo, Kevin Mitnick and Kevin Poulsen. Image via Wikicommons
Who he was: A mischievous little phreak who became famous for winning a Porsche by hacking his way into telephone company switches and making himself the 102nd caller in a Los Angeles radio station giveaway. He was the subject of an NBC documentary about his phreaking, was captured by the FBI, and became an early hacking celebrity when he served jail time.
Where he is now: Poulsen’s a respected and highly influential tech writer. He reinvented himself as an investigative tech journalist, helping expose a bunch of sex offenders on MySpace and breaking the story of Bradley Manning’s arrest. He’s a news editor at Wired and co-founder of their awesome Threat Level blog.
5. Richard Kashdan (aka “Mark Bernay”)
Who he was: A national phreaking evangelist and crossover talent in pre-Internet punch-card computer hacking. He built blue boxes, set up his own switchboard and mechanical research lab, and left little stickers in phone books around the country that invited people to call numbers to hear weird tape recordings.
Where he is now: “Bernay” seems to be a genial older gent with a strong affinity for making friends online. He maintains phonetrips.com, a spot for people to learn about the history of phreaking and read a treasure trove of documents from the phreak underground. You can find him on Twitter, Google+, and failed social networks like posterous.com.
4. Fraser Lucey
Who he was: A major character in Ron Rosenbaum’s 1971 Esquire article that made phreaking famous. He used his beloved blue box to show the author how he would make connections and friendships with people whose phones he’d randomly call across the world.
Where he is now: Impossible to find. I’ve searched for him at length, but can’t find any trace. Who knows if that was even his real name?
3. Mark Abene (aka “Phiber Optik”)
Who he was: An 80s phreaking adept who spent countless hours studying the telecommunications network so he could break into early modem lines that required enormous phone toll charges. He became a famous member of a bunch of telephone hackers known as the Masters of Deception and made powerful enemies at AT&T. He was arrested in 1991, when computer security laws were still fuzzy, and became an early martyr in the hacker world during his legal tribulations.
Where he is now: He’s gone to the dark side, or the light side, depending on how you look at it. After serving jail time, he became a network security consultant, making lots of money helping organizations protect themselves online. He says he has no regrets.
2. Brad Carter (aka “RedBoxChiliPepper”)
Who he was: A leader of the “Phone Losers of America,” a phreaking group founded in the 90s. The PLA’s online zine became a mecca for latter-day phreaks interested in disruption and humor. His organization taught people how to enter secret codes on pay phones that made them release all their change, hack fast-food drive-throughs, and organize massive “phone mobs” to harass people.
Where he is now: Still fighting the phreak fight. The PLA is still around and is the primary game in town if you want to hang out online with anyone else interested in messing with the phone world. He blogs, puts out a podcast, books, a YouTube channel, and a conference-call line for users to meet up on.
1. Kevin Mitnick (aka “Condor”)
Who he was: Public Enemy #1 in the early days of hacking. As a kid in the early 80s, he met with fellow phreaks at a Hollywood pizza parlor, making elaborate prank calls. He was the rare phreak who took his work into the physical world, breaking into Pacific Bell’s Los Angeles phone center — and using Captain Crunch’s real name, John Draper, as a pseudonym on a guest sign-in sheet. He was arrested, but his real legal troubles came when he became famous for hacking into a bunch of early computer networks in the late 80s (including ARPANET), becoming a fugitive, and cloning cell phones to evade capture. After years of pursuit, he got nabbed, law enforcement officials told a judge he had the ability to “start a nuclear war by whistling into a pay phone,” and he served years of hard time. His exploits made him famous as one of the quintessential computer criminals.