What are Phone Phreakers?

By: Gloria Moore

Phreaking is a slang word that refers to people who tamper with, play around with, experiment with, and study systems of telecommunication such as the public telephone networks and various phone system audio frequencies. Phreak - from which the verb phreaking is derived - is a combination of the two words phone and freak. A person who participates in phreaking is referred to as a phone phreak or a phreaker.

These days, the term's definition has broadened to include people involved in computer hacking - sometimes referred to as H/P culture (hacking and phreaking culture).

Nobody really knows how phreaking got going, but phreaking as it is known today, can be traced back to the 1950s in the U.S. when AT&T started to utilize automatic direct-dial long distance as well as other forms of carrier trunking which used in-band signaling. Just as on the internet there are hackers and crackers, at that time, there were people experimenting with the phone systems.

As technology changed, so did the phreaks and the techniques that they employed. Each started with their own independent tests and experiments over the telephone network, and then - as they found each other and phreaking became more popular - they began to work in groups to maximize the efficacy of what they have learned and the methods they employed.

When a controversial article came out in June of 1972 in Ramparts Magazine, called "How to Build a 'Phone Phreaks' Box", phreaking truly took off. The article was suppressed as heavily as possible - Bell sued Ramparts Magazine, forcing it to take remaining magazines from the shelves - but the damage had been done. It detailed the schematics plans of a kind of "black box" which could be employed in order to make long distance phone calls for free. Its parts list was very short and the construction was quite simplistic.

In the 1980's, phreaks became more tech savvy with the growing popularity of personal computers and modem-accessed bulletin boards. These were popular areas for phreaks, hackers, and others interested in tampering and experimenting with technology to share their knowledge and improve their schemes. This has continued with the internet and the world wide web to an extremely complex level. Phreaks are no longer simple tinkerers, but are individuals with a multifaceted understanding and practice in phone systems.

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