Phil Lapsley: "Recipe for a Phone Phreak."

Phil Lapsley: "Recipe for a Phone Phreak."

Exploding the Phone book coverTo all you curious, obsessive, rebellious young techies: Exploding the Phone author Phil Lapsley thinks you might be phreaks.


Zola: How did you first hear about “phone phreaking”? What made you think it was a worthy topic for a book?

Phil Lapsley: I first learned about phone phreaking when I was in 7th grade back in 1978 or so. I was a geeky computer kid back then and I thought it seemed really interesting. Later, as an adult, phone phreaking always struck me as a really interesting phenomenon, in multiple ways. First, it’s kind of a precursor to computer hacking, so it’s interesting in a “pre-history” kind of way. Second, it was largely undocumented–although a few magazine and newspaper articles had been written about it, there was nothing comprehensive. Third, I think it’s important: the phone phreaks, and the people who dealt with them in the telephone company and the law enforcement community, were some of the first to grapple with some knotty problems in electronic privacy and security.

Zola: How much did your background as an electrical engineer help with the research and writing?

PL: Quite a bit. First, it allowed me to understand at a technical level what the phone phreaks were doing, and how the telephone system worked. It also gave me a certain amount of credibility with both the phone phreaks and the former telephone company engineers that I dealt with. And finally, it allowed me to explain the technical details in a way that is hopefully both interesting to the lay reader and yet still accurate.

Zola: In the “Sources and Notes” section, you write that gaining your interviewees trust was key to learning about phone phreaking and their roles in it. What were your keys to achieving that trust?

PL: There were a couple of challenges here. Many people I talked to were concerned about how they (and phone phreaking in general) were going to be portrayed in Exploding The Phone. Some of the phone phreaks were worried that I was going to make them look bad, and, for their part, some of the Bell Labs and former telephone company people were concerned that my book would glorify an activity that they didn’t much approve of. In addition, a lot of the phreaks were worried that somehow they would get in trouble, or their reputation would suffer, if I “outed” them as phreaks. The main way I gained their trust was simply talking to them over a long time–in one case it took almost a year before the person would agree to be interviewed for the book. I tried to set them at ease and help them understand the largely sympathetic way I was planning to present both sides of the issue.

Zola: As Exploding the Phone details, phone phreaks from all over the country came together to learn and talk about telephones and the technology behind them. Do you think there are any groups today that resemble the phone phreaks of the late 60s and 70s?

PL: That’s a great question. In some ways, yes–for example, if you look at the hackerspace movement (google “hackerspace”) you’ll see that there is a real resurgence in people interested in getting together to learn about and play with technology and to use it in ways in which it wasn’t originally intended. But there’s a big difference today: back in the 1960s and early 1970s, these people had no way of finding each other. The Internet has completely changed this. No matter how obscure your interests, today you can find a website or Yahoo group devoted to it, filled with other people who share your interests, with just a few mouse clicks.

Zola: It seems that sheer curiosity was mainly what inspired men like Engressia and Draper to spend a large portion of their time learning about the telephone system and the different ways to circumvent long distance call charges. Were there any other shared characteristics among phone phreaks? 

PL: Recipe for a phone phreak: start with a young man (let’s say 14 to 24; and yes, at least during the 1960s and early 1970s, it was all male). As you say, add a healthy dose of curiosity. Mix in an interest in technology, especially electronics. Now add a significant dash of obsessiveness. Sprinkle with some ego, especially the kind that enjoys pulling pranks or doing something that someone has told them “can’t be done.” Garnish with a certain level of disregard for societal customs, or maybe some disrespect for authority, and you’ve got a phone phreak. (Or at least, you did back in the early 1970s before the personal computer. Today you’d be more likely to wind up with a hacker.)

This article originally appeared on Zola Books.