Below are goodies that could not be included in the book due to space constraints. Enjoy.
Phil: So what got you into phones?
Treichler: I was very interested in electrical things and electronic things when I was very young. Seven, eight, nine, ten years old, and I did whatever you could get the parts for in a small town in Texas. My uncle was an electrical engineer, so we built crystal radios, but the thing that for some reason, and I just don't know why, so fascinated me, was the telephone. When I was eleven I got into Boy Scouts, even at the same time I was getting my novice ham license. The Boy Scout troop that I was a part of had lots of war surplus stuff, this being right after WW II and the Korean War. One of the things we had was Army field telephones. EE8B field telephones, magneto, bell, phone, and a couple D-sized batteries, and we used those all the time. Whenever we went camping we would set up our various campsites further away than you would normally and string wire between them. And so I became the one who knew everything about them, and could repair them, 'cause you couldn't get parts for them, and telephones were just sort of an interesting thing. I was 11 or 12 or 13 at this point.
Now, the thing that made it hard, though, was that there was no literature about this. One of the things that is really interesting about the telephone business now, compared to 40 years ago, is that now there are university courses and textbooks, and there are tens, maybe even hundreds of thousands of engineers who know fairly intimately about communications. Back then, there may have been that many, but they were all inside the Bell system, that's where the information was. They had a government mandate to be the country's telephone company, or at least be the system engineer for all of telephony in America. They didn't actually operate all of the operating companies, but they did have the universal long distance system, and they had the laboratories that set up the systems and wrote the interface documents between any telephone entity and any other. So even though there were still private telephone companies out there, and some of them fairly big, they were The Phone Company, and they felt no compulsion whatsoever to publish outside of their own community.
They published widely inside, though. One of the few avenues to the outside was the Bell System Technical Journal, which back then I didn't even know about, I mean heck, I was 11, 12, 13, I didn't know about any journals, so what're you gonna do? I was fascinated, however, by telephone stuff, and my 8th grade science project, so I must have been 13, was in fact an incredibly simple little PBX. I saved up all my money and bought a 21-step stepping switch. It was really used for industrial control, not telephone at all, because remember you couldn't buy telephone stuff. That was inside the phone company.
So I learned enough about how Strowger switches worked to understand about stepping switches, and so built, and took to the science fair, and went to the regional science fair, and won a prize for a little 20 station PBX. AT&T contributed to it by the local Southwestern Bell folks loaning me a couple phones that I could rewire to use for the purpose, but other than that they provided no technical detail. But they smiled broadly at the awards ceremony, because phones are wonderful, even though they were not going to tell anybody about them.
So anyway, that was the backdrop. There really wasn't much to go on beyond that because you couldn't buy the parts, you couldn't get the information, and even though inquiring minds want to know, what I spent my time mostly doing was building ham radio stuff. And that had limitations since I just really didn't like talking to people over the radio, or maybe at all. What I liked doing was building stuff, and then testing it. To radiate legally, though, you needed a license, and so that's why I had my license.
So, that's probably where it would have ended, except my family moved to Michigan when I was sixteen, and the guy who lived behind me, and one house over, an adult, worked for Michigan Bell.
Particularly in small town America, and it's a very nice thing, whenever the word gets around that there's a young, clever person, the neighbors sort of come out and say "How can I help you along?" And in that vein this fellow said "Hey, I work for Michigan Bell, always happy to pat you on the head, always happy to see a bright young kid coming along, is there any way I can help you?" I'm sure he meant a tour of the central office or something like that, but I said, "I want to read something."
He went and gave me a copy, and I still remember, it's a (I'm using my hands here, so I apologize), it's a book about not quite an inch thick, about 9 inches wide, about 12 inches tall, whose euphonious title was The Principles of Electricity as Applied in Telephone and Telegraph Work, and copyrighted 1953 by AT&T Long Lines. It was basically a textbook that they used in their training courses. And I thought this thing was just fascinating! Okay let's see, I was sixteen, going on seventeen. Because what it did, it was really trying to teach you principles of electricity and magnetism. Okay, so it was trying to teach you circuit theory, and network theory, and in fact complex arithmetic.
Now, it didn't actually say that. It talked about things as magnitude and angle, and it taught you the ways to manipulate them, but it basically was trying to tell you what the phase shift was, and the group delay, and all those things that I'd never heard of. However, it repeatedly used examples of real stuff in the network. Real switchboards, real microwave transmission systems, real carrier transmission systems. And, oh by the way, real signaling systems. And so, I read the book. The trouble is, this was before Xerox machines were generally available, I'm sounding old now, because everybody has one at home now, but they didn't exist. My dad had one at work, and I asked him to go in and copy two pages from me, and it was sort of like I was asking him to steal from Fort Knox or something of that magnitude. He went and copied those two pages for me, but other than that there was no way to capture this information, and even though I had a pretty good memory I wasn't confident I could remember everything. So I got a brown spiral notebook, which I still own, it's sitting on the table between us, where I copied everything I could. You could describe it as "monk-like", and it sort of was true.
I spent many cold nights and mornings out in my workshop out in the garage in Michigan, copying stuff out of that book, because the guy had made it explicit, that I had to give it back to him. I couldn't thieve it from him. So, I copied as much as I possibly could, and among my various other high school activities (some reasonable, some not), I was doing other hobby work, other ham radio work, and so I'm not sure when it happened. It was sometime in early 1965 that all of a sudden I realized something. It was an epiphany. I wasn't headed off to do this, and I can't remember anybody asking me a question about it. But, there's something to filling your head full of stuff and then, something happens. So, I had, in that book, written down what's now known as the multi-frequency key pulse code pairs, and I also knew about SF, and how that worked, cause I'd read all this stuff, so it just all of a sudden occurred to me that I knew how it all worked. Well, what do you do about it when you think you know how something works? Well, all of us had been schooled in the scientific method.
I mean, it's just really straight forward. The scientific method is: You have a theory for something, and you're just obligated to test it.
There's just no choice, but to go test it. So, I understood how central offices fed into tandems and then on to toll switches, and there were various transit toll switches and at the other end, and I understood how SF worked link by link, and I understood how multifreq worked, at least according to the book, and it's funny, I didn't totally understand it when I wrote it down, but after you've got all the information, and then you think through what must be going on, then the nuances start appearing. And it turns out that the only reason that phone phreaking works is because of a couple nuances. I'll get to them later. Okay, I certainly hadn't realized that when I wrote the stuff down. But now, what do you have to do, you have to test your theory. Well, testing it meant building something, so I sat down, and I designed up something, and I decided not to just stop with push buttons turning on pairs of tones, I decided to incorporate all the knowledge I had, and that turned in to something that is sort of funny now. It was going to cost me 50 bucks. Okay, now 50 bucks back in 1964, 65, was kind of a lot of money. Go figure the consumer price index, and I'll bet you'll find it's well in excess of $500 now. So, is it worth it really worth spending $500? The answer is "Yeah!" But it took me a little time to work up the money. So, I'll jump to the end and then come back to tell you the story of how it happened, because that's curious in its own way, but the answer is I did get the parts, I did get the money, I did buy the parts. The little town I lived in had no electronics store, so this was all through an outfit called Allied Radio which is now called Allied Electronics, and I did build it, and it did work. But, the story of how all that happened is slightly more amusing, because it explains some other of the things I have here to show you.
I had a summer job in 1965 with Dow Chemical, and that gave me the money I need to get over my threshold, so seconds before I dropped out of high school and went off to Rice to go to college, I sent in my order to Allied Radio.
A story that I won't tell you completely is that about two months later I became financially independent. Most people think that means wealthy. No, in my case it meant poor, because nobody was paying for me any more! My mother and I had a falling out over a girl I was dating, and I made the claim that she couldn't tell me what I could do or not do, and she made the claim that so long as she was paying for my tuition she very well could. And after a few more poorly chosen words I ended up not having my tuition paid for anymore, so now I was financially independent. Well, heck, don't let that worry you. It did mean that I had to make a deal with the Navy, and ultimately ended up in Navy ROTC, and ultimately ended up in the Navy, but so, made those choices. So I came back at Christmas that year, and completely ignored this girlfriend that I had become financially independent over, in order to build this gizmo.
So this is Christmas '65. And it had a dial, it had buttons that could be used as a touchtone pad, which with a suitable flick of a switch became multi-frequency key pulse, and that was all part of a plan on my part to be able to explain to the Bell System, when they showed up on my doorstep, that this was really a phone patch for my ham radio system.
The phone company wasn't terribly wild about phone patches, because most people did it by connecting to the wires, that you weren't supposed to. The Carter Phone Decision hadn't happened yet, that was in '68, and so the Bell Systems' official rules, which they enforced fairly vigorously, was no metallic contact. Phone patches were sort of allowed, though, because most of the time they led to revenue. If a ham radio operator was going to bring in a call from say, at that time, Vietnam, and then make a long distance phone call into the AT&T network, "Okay, we'll let you do that."
So, if I had a story that could be backed up with that I had a dial and I had a touchtone pad, and a whole bunch of switches that controlled things, then that was plausible. But in fact, the gizmo had a key switch on the front, and in one position it was normal telephone, and the other switch it was all of the other tone-based signaling capabilities.
So anyway, I spent all of Christmas break building the thing. And, I took it back to Rice with me. By the way the girl was just totally furious. I ignored her for the whole two weeks, except that I took her to the movie Doctor Zhivago. And I can still remember, there's a scene in Doctor Zhivago where they're on a sleigh going out into the middle of the steppes, and it's just cold, cold, cold, cold, and I can remember thinking that that didn't look nearly as cold as the woman sitting next to me felt about my having ignored her so thoroughly.
So anyway I went back to Rice, and it was now time. I had a theory, and now I had the experimental equipment. It was time to go try it.
So, off I went. However, maybe not in the rest of the country, although I think pretty much in the rest of the country it was true, too, AT&T had done an excellent job of letting everybody know that they were the phone company and you weren't, okay, and that it was perfectly clear to me that they would view what I was doing as, I didn't know the term toll fraud yet, but I would soon (laughs), that this was not what you were supposed to be doing. They would take a dim view.
On the other hand, my plan wasn't to defraud them massively or anything, I just wanted to see if the stinking thing worked, and it was worth fifty bucks for me to find out if I was right.
You had a theory, you were solving a puzzle.
Exactly right. So, I went out and I literally had the thing in what would now be called a gym bag. And I had a cable coming out of the back. Actually, it was zip cord, used for house wiring, and a couple alligator clips on the back, and I would go find a payphone. Typically the stand alone payphones back then, on the back upper part, had the lightning arrester with a boot on it. I'd just slip that off, connect the end with a pair of alligator clips, and then go inside the payphone, and for all the world from the outside it looked like the handset came out of the gym bag, people couldn't tell that it wasn't a part of the payphone, and I could just stay there for as long as I wanted to, doing what I did.
Well, the net effect is, it worked perfectly. (chuckles) It just worked like it was supposed to. I didn't have to do anything, it just worked.
I mean I think the theory is perfectly understood, and if they're listening to this or looking at the web page they'll understand that you need to burst 2600 in order to convince the first serious toll switch down the way that you've hung up, and then once you do you turn the tone off (which is just a momentary thumb flick, it's easy), and then, hey, it's there, a register just waiting for you to feed it, and so it's up to you to feed it. (laughing) It's your job, it's a requirement, it's depending on you. You can just imagine it sitting there saying "Come to Momma. Send me digits."
And so, [imitating MF], do do do do do do do do. I never had perfect pitch, nor could ever sing to it, and I couldn't do a recorder or flute like some other people could do, and Captain Crunch whistles, why bother, I just built twin-T oscillators with transistors, and I was off to the races.
So, let me just ask a question there. So on those first calls, you have this theory about how it should work... Was your first call to an actual long distance number? Was it to an 800 number? Directory Assistance?
Well, the technique I used was directory assistance or 800 first, and I didn't even bother to let it go through. As you know from listening, you can hear how many switches it's going through, where it is, and since I had lived in Michigan, and knew that area pretty well, I knew what the basic steps through the Bell System were, in order to get there. Houston, Dallas, St. Louis, Detroit, Ann Arbor, wherever. And so I just let it go a switch or two, and then just hit it with 26, and didn't even bother to let the call complete.
And who'd you call?
Well, that's a very interesting thing. I called completely different places. I never called the same pair, I never called the same place from the same place, ever.
Okay. So you had good trade craft.
Precisely. I didn't know the word for it then. But in fact, what I've come to understand later, this is called trade craft. And I never did anything that would correlate, I had no idea what machinery the Bell System had behind them for record keeping, and I was sure that if I went to four different places, and called four different numbers all over the country, who weren't related to me, I picked them out of magazines and stuff, I mean they just weren't related to anything, but for the thing I was trying to prove they all worked fine. In a couple days I was done. And I also didn't do them all in the same day.
So, there you go, I had this technology, it was really quite wonderful. To my knowledge at the time, and actually for several years afterward, I didn't know there was anybody else out there doing this. Just not at all. Nor did I particularly go try. There wasn't the internet to try and reach out and bond with others who were doing it. Later on when people started seriously talking about the phone company it was all expressed in counter-cultural terms, I mean that was the 60's, and anti-war movement, and the system and Richard Nixon and an awful lot of the stuff that came out in 1969, 1970, '71, was all couched in "Here's a way to screw the system." Not just The System, but the Bell System as well. But, there was none of that yet in 1966. I was 2000 miles from, as I turned out to know later there were other people out doing this, but I didn't know it.
However there is a funny story associated with it, because my trade craft with respect to calling people and not calling people was good. My trade craft with regard to keeping this a secret at school wasn't as good. I did not talk about it, but my roommate did. My roommate was a mechanical engineer and he thought this was really quite fascinating.
And I wouldn't tell him about it in any detail. But the word trickled out. And it trickled out into two camps of people, both are kind of amusing. The first was all of the jocks in my dorm, who all wanted to call their girlfriends and who didn't have enough money to do it. It wasn't easy telling these big guys "No, that's an idiotic thing to do."
The other group of people who heard about this and wanted to come talk about it, was there were some folks at Rice, a year or two ahead of me, who featured themselves as, I can't think of any other word other than a later word, they fancied themselves as phone people or phone phreaks in some sense, but their techniques were all incredibly inelegant and crude. Not just social engineering, which I always considered as just fraud - while it's really nice to be able to talk somebody into telling you something they shouldn't tell you, I never considered that to be quite in the same league as a technologically based approach. So they would do that, and they would do some other things that I thought were just incredibly clunky. They wanted me to tell them what I was up to, and I wouldn't.
Part of it was, they didn't deserve it, but part of it was, there was an honest and legitimate concern on my part that if AT&T heard about this they would view this very negatively. And you know, I wasn't going through life trying to do illegal things, but while I thought this was scientific inquiry, I honestly thought this was something they would legitimately object to. I didn't quite know how to use what I'd learned in any constructive way, but every other way to use it was destructive, illegal, or could cause a giant mess.
So, that's the situation, now it's important that you know that situation, because in February of 1966 it was Mardi Gras, and you're thinking "What's so interesting about that?"
This was about two or three weeks after I had verified the thing would work, and these other approaches had been made by various constituencies. (Calling the jocks a constituency is kind of funny, but...) So, I went off to Mardi Gras with a big bunch of folks. Now, what you have to understand, everything is different now, but back then the drinking age in Louisiana was 18, and in Texas and every other state it was 21. So, the big opportunity to go to New Orleans, under the guise of going to Mardi Gras, was that this could be your first serious experience drinking yourself totally out of your mind, and it would be legal. So, we all went off over there, including my girlfriend who I'd become financially independent because of, she came down from Des Moines to go with us, so a great time was had by all.
How this relates to the story is that on the Monday — we had school so I didn't stay for Tuesday of Mardi Gras — but we all came back very, very, very, very late, or early Monday morning, I had to get her back off to the airport so she could go back up to school. I came back around 11 or noon just feeling awful, really smelling bad, and just sort of crashed across my little military kind of cot in the dorm room.
About thirty minutes later the guy who was in charge of the dorm came and knocked on my door and told me that the Dean of Students wanted to see me. That's interesting. Why would the Dean of Students want to see me? Well, so I went over there immediately, so no shower, no clean clothes, no nothing, and I straggled in there, and the Dean of Students said, "Oh, John. How nice it was that you could come to join us. I would like to introduce you to Mr. John Fry, Head of Security for Southwestern Bell Telephone, who has flown down from St. Louis today for the opportunity to meet you."
Well, since that time I've had occasion to talk to some people who do sneaky things for a living and they say that there's an absolute standard set of things you do in a circumstance like this. I had not had any such formal schooling, nor have I since, but I can tell you a couple things. One was that no matter how drunk I was, and how sleepy I was, I became instantly alert and awake. Just BOING! All systems were on.
The second thing you do, I am told, and it is exactly what I did, is that you deny everything.
The third thing is, you appeal to higher authority. I need to talk to your boss, I need to talk to the Chief Magistrate, this is completely inappropriate, I need to talk to the Ambassador,
It was just intuition, you know? But I played a card that turned out to be wrong, which was, I didn't think that they knew anything about the device. Because we Americans have this idea about the 4th Amendment and protection of your property from unreasonable search and seizure. This thing was sitting in my dorm room, not connected to anything, but it was sitting in my dorm room and that was MY dorm room, right?
Not true. It was the university's dorm room. And when the Bell System came to Rice University and said, "We think there's fraud! Fraud, going on in your university. We would like to go in over the weekend, while this guy's out of town, and examine these Tools of Fraud..."
So they'd examined the thing quite thoroughly. They knew exactly what it could do, so then, Plan B, since Plan A had worked so well. Plan B was "Hope that their record keeping wasn't good enough" to find out that I'd actually used it. So Plan B was to deny that I'd ever used it. And as it turned out that one worked, since they couldn't prove otherwise. Now, remember that 1965 to 1975 window where the Bell System decided to really get serious about trying to track down this sort of thing?
They didn't really acknowledge that was going on until the late 60's, but (notice that this was 1965, 1966) I think I benefited from the fact that even if they were starting to instrument such a system, that it wasn't all there yet.
So anyway, I just denied everything. "Yeah, I built it, yeah, it could be used for that, but it was my phone patch, and I just a went a little further and put some other stuff into it." And any stories they had heard of me being able to do anything else with it just weren't true, and they couldn't prove to the contrary.
So, we cut a deal, which was that I would give them a set of drawings to the box. I actually cheated; I gave them the set of drawings without the good stuff. And they took them off with them and mailed them back in a few days. The guy did offer me a job, that was the quid back then. He said, "Wow, this is really enterprising on your part, and while we don't agree with anything you did here, this is really neat, are you interested in maybe a job with us?"
I still have, just because there are things you save from your youth that were important to you, I still have the letter he sent me when he sent me back my drawings. This says, "Thank you very much. I enjoyed your explanation and your interest in the communications industry." I've always been fascinated by the verb. I enjoyed your explanation. Not: I was convinced by it, or I appreciated it, or anything like that, but that, and the look in his eye as I was talking to him, I wasn't fooling him for a heartbeat. I don't think there's any question.
So, lessons learned there, (pauses, laughs) - and there were so many. Well, first of all, from an absolutely narrow, technological point of view, I had verified exactly what I wanted to verify, so the scientific method was intact. There were many other things to think about trying, but the fundamental question was, "Did you understand how AT&T's long distance toll network worked? And the signaling method used to interconnect the switches?" Absolutely.
Absolutely. You've got demonstrable evidence to that point.
I've got demonstrable evidence, and there were no failures, everything was a success, I stressed it enough. I went to the four corners, as they call it, but it only took a few carefully crafted phone calls to do that.
I had found out that the Bell System really does care.
I had figured out that operational security was incredibly important. I did ultimately find out who it was that ratted me out, because somebody did rat me out. It was one of the "phone phreaks" who was disappointed that I wouldn't tell him, that I wouldn't share, so that was an interesting lesson.
We're not quite done. That was 1966. It is still interesting that for the next couple years I didn't hear anything about any similar activities, and it really caught me quite by surprise when, in 1968, on January the 10th, the Wall Street Journal had an article entitled "Telephone Operators: Ingenious Young Men Outfox Phone Firms." I thought that was just way interesting.
I didn't think I was unique in the universe, but I didn't know who else was doing it. So, from this article, it spoke mostly about people in the Harvard and MIT circle, a handful of folks who seemed to be motivated much the same as I was, hey, it's a puzzle, it's interesting, it's a black box system with very little information about it. And most of the methods they described in the paper were, I'll call them regression analysis and statistical, i.e. analyzing numbering plans looking for holes. And from the holes, trying to figure out what must be tie lines and other kinds of sort of low level infrastructure, which if they got in and used they could make free long distance calls. So they were a little bit more motivated by the use of it, and the techniques were a little bit more, I don't want to say analytical, I'll just say statistical analysis. The people who wrote the article were quite fascinated by the fact that you could use a computer to do this, but it wasn't that you were using a computer to make tones, but more to look at numbering plans and find gaps and stuff.
There were two fundamental techniques that became quite clear, out of an understanding of how the system worked, and one was the method I'd used, which was generating SF in order to grab control of the switch chain, and then using MFKP, and that later on became "Blue Boxing", there was no such term for it when I was doing it, and matter of fact mine was gray, a gray Bud box actually. And the other technique which is available, using your knowledge of this, which later on became I believe called "Black Boxing", was understanding that if you were able, on the receiving side, to insert your 2600 Hz tone and send it back on the reverse side of the chain, you could convince all the switches in the chain that you had never answered. So when your phone rang, and you answered, then there was the 48 volts from the Central Office flowed, and the Central Office said, "Fine, he's answered, I'll turn off my 2600 Hz tone," but if you were already transmitting another one then the guy at the far end and all the switches in between couldn't tell any difference, and as far as they were concerned they hadn't answered, and so from the originating side it would look like a very long call attempt, but with no success. And students were doing it, which is fine, and the newspaper article alluded to that, and so there was no technique in this article which seemed to suggest anything other than what I had done.
And the fact that the guys, no slur to anybody on the East Coast listening to this, but the fact that the guys at MIT and Harvard wanted to brag about it and chat it up among their friends didn't surprise me at all. They consider themselves to be the actual intellectual center of the universe, and very proud of themselves, and I had come from an engineering school that was every bit as good as MIT, but didn't have the name brand, so it didn't surprise me at all that they were talking about it and then getting caught. (laughs)
So, it turns out that about a year or two later, I don't have the article for it, I saw another article that caught my eye, where the black boxing method, that of generating the 2600 Hz at the receive side, was now not only of interest by the Bell System, but also by the FBI, because it was being used a lot in Las Vegas and Reno for gamblers, and so no better way to keep your phone calling to bookies off the books than to count on no billing record being made, and if the call attempt was not recorded. Which then, again, the call attempts weren't recorded, only the completed, billed calls were. So once again back to the Bell System guys and their need to do databasing — they need to keep a record of every call attempt, and not just completed ones. So ultimately, as far as I know, other than somebody ratting somebody out (a crass term) the successes the Bell System had were never signal-based ones, but basically analysis of billing records based ones, and that's fine. In the computer science world now we call that metadata, and so this was the analysis of metadata, and sometimes you don't collect all the metadata you need, and so you go back and have your instrumentation systems gather you the metadata you need.
So what happened next?
Well, I had fallen madly in love with another girl, and I found the world converging on me in a way that was most uncomfortable. I had kept my nose clean, more or less, at Rice, and worked hard, and kept my grades up so that I wouldn't flunk out and get drafted. I came from a draft district where anybody who wasn't in college went to the army, and so staying in school was very important. Part of my strategy for going to college was that no American war had lasted longer than four years since the Revolutionary War, and so since I counted Vietnam as starting in April of '65 when the Marines first went in, if I could stay in school until April of '69, then I'd be free.
I had the data set to back up the analysis, there was just one counter-example. Now two. (laughs)
And so, I did a scam on the Navy in 1969, to get to stay another year of college. I went over and told them (I lied, it's true), I told them that I didn't have enough credits to graduate, and I was going to have to stay a fifth year, and was that okay. They checked with Washington, DC, "Grumble, grumble, grumble, grumble, okay, you can stay an extra year." Phew. Okay, that'll be enough. Okay, well, my next big out was the big draft lottery that fall. Finally the selective service was being modified so that instead of just arbitrarily picking people in a process that was clearly not being done perfectly well across the country, they decided the lottery based on your birthday. My birthday was number 6. So out of priority 1 through 366, mine was number 6. Okay, this was very bad. [They selected up to number 190 that year.]
So that meant that this was not going to be, this was looking like I had a Date With Destiny, which was the 23rd of May, 1970, which was when I would graduate. And if nothing changed, I was going to end up at the End of the Universe, off into the Navy, and you would never see me again. End of life as I knew it, and that was made more exaggerated by the fact that, as I mentioned, I had fallen madly in love with a girl. She was in Ann Arbor, unfortunately, and I was in Houston, and I was poor, and so any nickel I had I would cobble together, and either fly up or drive up to see her, in my old car. It took $22 dollars to get there, seven tanks of gas at, get this, $3 a tank.
It was thirty cents a gallon, roughly, then. And so I would drive straight through in 24 hours, seven tanks of gas and enough Coca Cola to keep me completely wired. I could get there, spend a couple days, turn around and drive back. So anyway, I was totally infatuated with this girl. I had a very strong belief that if events conspired that I could not pay attention to her on a regular basis that she, being a naturally healthy American young lady, somebody else would pay attention to her, and my ability to capture her for life would be over.
So, you know, you can ask in retrospect what was the worst part? Having to go in the military? No, the military wasn't really the issue, I didn't have any ethical problem with it. As a matter of fact I can, just to start a controversy on your website, still make the argument that the Vietnam War, actually when you look at it all in perspective, not that it was particularly well fought, but when you look at what else was going on, and in Asia at the time in terms of the Communist movement south, you can perversely argue that the Vietnam War did what it was supposed to do, which was arrest the further southern movement,
The Domino Chain.
Right, it stopped the Chain of Dominos. Now, 80 million people will argue with my comment, but I didn't want to go purely because I was selfish. I didn't want to go because my other friends were getting on with their life, I didn't want to because this girl was going to go find some other guy. I didn't want to go.
And, as you'll see, in the net I ended up going. So, in all of this framework I decided that it was really important to continue to invest in this young lady. And I mentioned driving up there whenever I could, which wasn't all that frequently. Flying, which was even less frequent, but talking on the telephone was possible. However, again something that seems quite stunning in these days of voice over IP and two cent phone calls, back then, even in the middle of the night, or on Sundays, it was a dollar a minute.
And dollars were worth something then. So, okay, let's put it in terms of still roughly $10 per minute, in modern dollars, 2005 dollars. So that wasn't going to work either. One needed better technology. Or one needed to have low enough scruples to actually say, okay, forget everything about 1965 and 1966, when it was just for science. Now I have a specific need.
(chuckling) Engineering is the application of science to better mankind.
Exactly. (laughing) In particular, me!
That's exactly right. Okay, well in the intervening interval, between about 1966 and about 1969, I had been busy learning all sorts of other stuff about the phone system, most of which doesn't relate narrowly to the phreaking problem, but just other stuff. My roommate and I had moved off-campus. We had a house about a mile down from a Bell System central office, and we decided that, in our home, we needed a couple of campus extensions and a couple extra phone lines. So we actually entered the Jackson Exchange of the Southwestern Bell telephone system, and in the middle of the night did a little cabling to ourselves ... (laughs).
Just think about it. This is absurd. Who would consider doing such a thing? You'd die, now. But this was '68, who noticed? This was pre air conditioning, and so they used to prop the doors open in Houston at night, just to get some air through the place. And there's actually no facility in the world, I believe, that, even though they claim it's a secure facility, that at three o'clock in the morning is as secure as it is at ten in the morning. It's just not. So on the main distributing frame we created some connections for what we needed, and in the manhole near our house we created the connections that we needed. So we did some stuff like that, but none of that was long distance.
But now you need some serious technology.
Well, I had been reading, and still it was extremely hard to find much about the Bell System, but I had discovered two very important things. Back in the summer of '66, that terrible summer in Michigan when nothing was going right, I decided to actually invest some money in something called The Bell System Technical Journal. I started my subscription to The Bell System Technical Journal in July, 1966. Then, by the way, it was five dollars a year, and something called The Bell Labs Record was $2 per year. Neither of which is trivial, but just got my bill the other day for something called The Bell Labs Technical Journal, which is actually published by Wiley, by the way, 270 frickin bucks! For something that's much less interesting! (laughs)
So anyway, but the Bell System Technical Journal, that was Item Number One. So I had subscribed going forward. And I found at Rice a stash in the EE lab, a stash of Bell Journals back to the 1940s. Excellent, very interesting reading. And I had pieced together what I thought was a pretty good explanation of how AT&T's toll test network worked. So, imagine the following, and the details don't terribly matter, but just enough to make it so. Suppose I had a capability to generate multifrequency key pulse tones.
The transmission system would typically would carry chunks of 600 or 1200 or 1800 phone calls in something called master groups, and inside those master groups some of them would be AT&T's network, some of them would be rented to the government, some of them might be leased lines for Hertz Rentacar. The channels available in the base band of the FDM systems then were basically leased out in pieces to various comers, the majority of which were AT&T for its normal, domestic telephone network, but there were lots of other folks in there. And the people who did the test work for AT&T needed to get at all of them. They needed a fairly flexible way to get in, look at all of them, and do some nice things.
So imagine you're in Houston, and suppose you go out, once again, with an 800 or an Information call, and a little touch of 2600 and now the circuit is yours. Suppose you had deduced one of the toll test numbers into St. Louis. Now, you could do the following: You could enter the toll test network in St. Louis, and then with a few of the right tones (you might guess there was some empiricism about this), you know, with a few of the right tones you could then establish a circuit from St. Louis to, say, Ann Arbor. And then you could, simultaneously then, following out immediately, you could create a circuit down to Houston, to the second phone on your desk.
And then you could bridge them. This was actually a conference calling capability. You could stack tandems also, but this was basically: Go to St. Louis, create a circuit up to Ann Arbor, another one down to Houston, and then cause them to be bridged, and so long as your first circuit, the one into St. Louis, held everything up, life was good. Because, once you had finished talking from Ann Arbor to Houston, maybe hours, and maybe you'd done this regularly (Bad trade craft. Bad.) you would then methodically disassemble both connections, and then kill your circuit into St. Louis, and nobody was the wiser. The reason is while the Bell System might be actively instrumenting its domestic public network, it wasn't logging test calls.
Now, quick technical digression here. So, when you're making these calls to set up you're dialing key pulse, and then NPA, and then probably a 0 or a 1 code, right? How did you come upon those codes? And how did you figure out how to use them?
(pause) I would like to tell you that I was just clever as hell. The truth of the matter is I read everything I could get my hands on, and what turned out to be the most interesting and useful was in the Bell System Technical Journal every so often when they were talking about something else they would use a semi-realistic example. And they didn't necessarily tell you the answer, but they allowed clues. An important clue is: anybody who looks at a map of area codes knows that there were none starting with zero, and there were none starting with one. And you say "Hmm, that's interesting." Now you might say oh, I know why I don't want to do that, that can be confused with an operator, that can be confused with a glitch, but when you actually start seeing a few examples here and there, where for various maintenance purposes or something it's clear that the Bell System is using those for its own purposes, you say, "Okay, now it's just a matter of going to figure out what they are." And so it was stumbling around, a little bit of direction, stumbling around.
Guided trial and error.
You just try it, and you try and error. That's right. To which part of you says ,"Get a life!" You know?
So anyway, an important point is, it would have been so much easier to talk to somebody from the Bell System, but I never did. I never asked, nor did I ever get, insider information. This was just plunking and playing and intuiting, how would I do it? I'd come to believe that engineers think in reasonably predictable ways, and particularly the Bell System, I mean wow, it was just really methodical. Even the way the area codes were created, where the one or zero originally meant, a one was a multi-state, a state with multiple area codes, and a zero meant there was only one area code in the state, and the other digits were only 2 through 9...
But where this story wraps up is that this technique worked. And to be quite honest, I wasn't nearly as interested in the science anymore, as once my science had gotten me to the intended result I didn't try to call other people with it, I didn't try other test centers, I had come to learn some other stuff, but remember, again, this was pre-Internet, and there were no books and libraries about this stuff. The Bell System Technical Journal was, if you were prepared to read them all -- and I was (laughs) - well, it had everything you needed.
And I loved it. I should have been doing better things, on a nice spring day, other than reading technical journals, but I found it fascinating. It was coming to understand the thought process for building one of the enormous and most complicated technical systems in the world. When I teach telephone classes (which I do sometimes), I talk about frequency division multiplexing. The guys who developed all this technology for frequency division multiplexing, they figured out how to build negative feedback amplifiers, good oscillators, filters, all that sort of stuff, and as an electrical engineer I joke that I unroll my prayer rug five times a day in the direction of Bell Labs in New Jersey.
Because, as an electrical engineer, particularly a circuit oriented electrical engineer, those guys invented electrical engineering as we know it. So you can't help but have respect for them.
Having said that, I wanted to make free phone calls. I'd converted from my scientific enquiry. It worked very well, so I spent way too much time from one specific phone number to another number. And you're saying, "Well, why am I sounding judgmental about this?" Because this came to either an amusing or an unhappy end, depending on how you want to view it.
The Navy was getting closer and closer, I was going to graduate. As to the girl, well, I was absolutely convinced that I loved her to death, but as soon as I went off to the Navy somebody would love her more, closer, and this relationship would end. I might know her forever, but what I had in mind would not be allowed to come to pass. So, I ran another scam. I went back over to the Navy and told them through a terrible mistake it looked like I wasn't going to graduate again.
(Laughs.) Hey, it worked last time!
(chuckling) It's a little far fetched, but it worked last time. Okay, so, what the heck, roll the dice, go for it. They said, "Hmm, that's interesting, okay, we'll have to check with Washington." And I hadn't gotten the answer on that yet, but I did go over to the Registrar's office and tell them that I was thinking not to graduate. And they said, "Well, you know that's bad. Because, you know, Rice is a little university, and we only have one graduation a year, and we send off to Scotland to get real sheepskin diplomas, and you get a real sheepskin, but you know we really have to have you on the list two months ahead, and if we take you off the list, well, you know, we can't have you graduate later with a wrong diploma." It was a typical, university bureaucratic sort of thing. The paperwork wouldn't work out! So I said take my name off, I'm feeling cocky. (laughs) I think I can trick the Navy into this, I'll be able to stay in school another year. The EE department said, "Sure, you can stay for a Ph.D., no worries."
And then something bad happened. Well actually a number of bad things happened, as you'll see, but a bad thing happened.
I was talking to this young lady on a Sunday afternoon, chatting, chatting, chatting, and I turned around in my office. I had a really old, wooden creaky office chair on a pivot, and as I turned around I knocked off of my desk a Heathkit oscillator. An old Heathkit vacuum tube, negative resistance oscillator that was set at 2600 Hz, that was actually holding the circuit open to St. Louis. Now I've got to draw this for you visually, or at least in the air with words (no worries, it's easy). The circuit from St. Louis to Ann Arbor was still up. The circuit from St. Louis to my house was still up, the one we were talking over. What was broken was the circuit that was originated from my house to St. Louis, the one that was controlling the whole thing. I had lost control.
Well, this young lady was chatting, chatting, chatting, chatting, chatting, and I was not listening because I realized I was in terrible trouble. Here's the situation. As you probably know, the way telephone circuits are built, they're built from the originator to the destination, link by link as they call it, and when you hang up what happens is the switches understand that the circuit is supposed to fall in the reverse way, so it expects to fall from one end to go to another. Here's what was going to happen: when, say, she hung up, the circuit would start falling from Ann Arbor to Detroit, and maybe an intermediate point, but into St. Louis. St. Louis would say, "What the hell? That's odd." So it would be caught with the other half of the circuit from St. Louis to Houston saying, "Wait, this didn't get set up in the normal way. This isn't a normal phone call. I better drop one of those double length, IBM, punch card trouble cards. And I just knew what was going to happen.
And this is all going through your head ...
... in the several hundred milliseconds as the as the 2600 Hz oscillator is falling onto the floor and bouncing across my floor! (laughing)
And she talked on, and she talked on, because this went on ten, twenty, thirty seconds as I'm thinking this through. Okay, that's what's going to happen. Whichever end hangs up, the other end is going to be identified, probably. I wasn't sure what their error keeping, but if I were they, I mean this is an anomaly, I would punch out a record. And at that point, by the way, the only thing you know is the end that's still connected. Cause the other guy's gone.
So I'm sitting there thinking, "let's think this through." If I hang up it's going to point to her. I don't know if they're going to detect this, I don't know if they're going to figure out what's going on, but let's suppose that they show up at her front door. Now remember, this is 1970, and if what I'm getting ready to say sounds sexist I apologize, they would show up at her front door, and here is this 20-year-old, very nice looking blonde haired girl, and they'd say "Nah." Probably. But if they start chatting her up, and by the way she was unwitting, I had not told her what I was doing. Now, anybody with any brains, at a dollar a minute, would know if I talked to her for 20 hours, or 40 hours that month that probably something was up, but she was not witting to this capability. But if they asked her about it she might say, "Oh, yeah, well, I have a friend down in Houston. Maybe it was he. I talk to him a lot." I didn't want to make her a witting part of it. I could have called her and said "Hey, look, I got a real problem, I need you to lie for me." I wasn't prepared to do that. On the other hand, not telling her anything might not be good enough either. So I thought about it, and thought about it, and thought about it, and said oh, man, this is one of those conundrum things. so after about 20 or 30 seconds of her talking I said, "Well, Andrea, I think you should hang up."
She said, "Okay, fine, I'll talk to you later."
And I said, "Yeah, maybe." (Laughs.)
And she hung up the phone, and I swear, literally I could hear the switches drop, and as soon as it got to St. Louis I just knew that I was screwed. I mean, I didn't actually know what the error record keeping was, but again, as an engineer, I would have done that.
This was April, 1970. This worried me. It's not like I didn't have enough worries already. I was trying to run this scam on the Navy. If that didn't work I was going to have to go in the Navy. I was finishing up my Masters at Rice, maybe to do a Ph.D., maybe not. A few days later something called Kent State happened, the 4th of May, 1970. And there were lots of other political things going on. I was broke, I was severely broke.
So I thought I ought to take some precaution, and the precaution I did take was to empty every bit of phone stuff out of the house. I mean, I had really a pretty nice setup in my house, I won't go into exactly what all it was, but I was well equipped telephonically. I could call, I had a number of outside lines, I had Rice University extensions a mile off campus. If you dialed an 8 you could kick in the old classical capability, you know, the blue boxing capability, so if you came over to my house and were privileged to come upstairs and dial an 8 you could dial out for free. I mean, I had combined everything I knew how to do well, for extremely private use. I took all that stuff out — we had 6 button phones, the old 100 series KSUs (Key Service Units, a kind of simple PBX) ... Cleaned it all out. The only thing left in the house were two black telephones, JA9-3669 and JA9-3660, I believe were the phone numbers, in the Jackson exchange, but that was just precaution, because I didn't know for sure that anything had happened. But things were getting worse otherwise.
The Navy came back and said "No. No, you have to go." I went over to the Registrar's office and they said, "Well, you told us to pull the diploma, you know, you're not going to graduate." I went back to the Navy and told them that, they conferred with Washington, DC, and said, "Oh, okay, no degrees? Well, you're going to go in the Navy, alright, but you're going to go in as an E2. An enlisted man, Seaman Apprentice. You're going to swab decks, boy."
So that was exactly what I was looking at. I hadn't graduated from High School, I hadn't graduated from college with a Bachelors or a Masters, and I was going to end up in the Navy as a swabbie. This truly sucked.
I didn't think life could get worse, but it could, because in early May, right after Kent State, five guys showed up at my door. And it was just like in the movies. Guys, black suits, sunglasses. They were from the Bell System.
Bell System only? Or any local law enforcement or FBI?
No, just the Bell System. Just the Bell System. And I invited them in. (laughs) Well, what're you gonna do?
(laughing) Don't mean to be rude, come on in!
(chuckling) Exactly right. And they told me that I had provided them a fascinating opportunity, that, in essence that trouble card had been punched, and that my other activities I hadn't been as clean as I thought. In other words I thought that would be the only evidence of what I was up to. But there was certainly nothing that pointed the way, but given that trouble card they were able to go back and correlate through several months of records.
It was the thread that unraveled. And they were happy to present to me a bill for in excess of $4,000 of telephone calls.
And this was, this was ... we call this "Bad."
So what do you do? I mean, what do you do? Best I could tell, my life was over. I was going to have to go into the Navy anyway, I was going to go in as a Sailor. I would not being able to pay attention to this girl, she would no doubt be schmoozed by some sweet-talking guy, and she would disappear, and so I would lose the love of my life, and on top of that these guys were charging me with many, many counts of grand theft.
So what do you do? Well, every so often you get inspired. Now, to explain to you exactly what happened, and as I start telling you this you'll figure it out, there's an old Southern custom, and I wish I could, I hope I can paint the picture for you well enough. Imagine some 18 year old kid who's gone and done something really stupid. He stole a horse, he kicked over the outhouse, or maybe several outhouses. Whatever. In rural America, particularly southern rural America, he's done something sort of somewhat illegal, slightly outlandish, high spirited, not really mean, but you just don't want that crap to go on. The kid needs some discipline. So you picture this kid standing up in front of the judge, and the judge looks down on you from the bench and says, "Kid, you don't look like a bad kid. What I really ought to do is send you to jail for a month or two. But what I really think is you need some discipline, and so, you know, if you were inclined to just go off and join the Army, and get some experience and discipline, I'd be prepared to just let this go by." So, you've got that image?
So I saw an opportunity. I knew something they didn't know. I knew that I was going to have to go off to the Navy in two weeks anyway, completely independent of anything that was said in that room. By the way, I didn't need to fake fear, I was scared enough. Don't let me at all portray the impression that I was cool. So I said, "Well, you know, this is really bad. I'm broke. I've got a 1966 Volvo, and I've got twenty-two dollars, and I'm not sure quite how I'm going to pay the rest of my rent. I was supposed to graduate in two weeks from college, and I just don't know what I can do about this. And they said, "Well, you know, don't worry about paying the bill. Worry about this as grand theft. You're going to go to jail." (chuckles)
"We're not here for the money. Between 1966 when we first talked to you, and this was just an interesting scientific inquiry, and in the meantime you graduated up to significant amounts of toll fraud."
And so, I basically beat around the bush for a little while, and said "You know, what would you think if I just left he jurisdiction? What would you think if I joined the Navy or something? What would you think if I was just gone, for a while? Would that, is that enough? Would that help you?"
And they chatted among themselves about it, and the basic issue seemed to be the following, although they didn't want me to hear it: It is my clear impression from their discussion back and forth that this was not a technique that was in wide application. And so this is the classic thing that the government gets themselves into now when they try to do espionage trials: how much do you want to talk about in court? You know, they could take me to court, and if I were mean spirited about it I'd tell everybody. And given the billions of dollars of investment in AT&T's network this is not something they were going to be able to change quickly. I mean, the only real solution to all these tone-based methods was to go to common channel signaling. They had been working on it actively since the mid '60s, there was already an existing CCITT number six international network that was being used for long distance calls to play around with, I mean for the phone companies to play around with, which AT&T was active and involved in, and they were fascinated by it, they were going to press it into service nationally, and it came true in 1976 and the intervening years, but they were not going to fix the problem I was exploiting quickly. And they didn't say, "Well, we've had a decision, and we'd rather just get you out of the country, rather than let you talk about this," but they took my offer. And I said, "Okay, fair and square, I'll tell you what. In three weeks I'll be in the Navy and I'll be out of your jurisdiction." And they thought about it some, and thought about it some, and said, "Hmm, okay."
So I gave them the twenty-two bucks I had. (laughs) They didn't take my car! (laughs)
I'm sure that this wouldn't have worked in other parts of the country, but this thing of the Texas judge looking down on the 18 year old who did something stupid like steal a horse, and offer them the opportunity to go off to the military and get their mind right, and probably these guys had all been in the military in the Second World War and Korea — so they knew that would straighten away a kid who was pretty sharp and maybe a little misguided, so they took the deal.
Now, I wasn't completely out of the woods yet, if you'll notice, because I was still going to the Navy as a swabbie, so that was a, a quick aside on that, I went back over to the Registrar's Office, threw myself on the mercy of a young lady who was married to one of the jocks from several years before, who I knew from my dormitory. She smoozed the Registrar into finding a way to let me graduate. (laughs) So, I actually graduated on the 23rd of May, 1970, with a Bachelors and Masters in EE, and became an Ensign in the Navy that day, not a sailor, and the very next day flew to Mayport, Florida, and the next day after that got underway for Vietnam on a destroyer. So I did leave the jurisdiction, ultimately forever.
Now, a couple comments to wrap that up. That's the moment I left this business. And it's not so much that I got caught, or that the first one was easy, the second one I dodged, the third one would be catastrophic, it wasn't anything like that. It was just that life changed. I had graduated from college. As I remember telling somebody at the time, you know, I'm past 21 now, I'm starting to look like an adult. I'm starting to need to behave, and be a contributing member of society. So, a couple of post notes on that. One of them was I went to the Navy for four years, and in the Navy I decided to go to graduate school, I applied to a bunch of graduate schools, picked one where it didn't snow -- that was Stanford. I didn't know anything at all about Stanford, but it turned out to be a good choice.
A month later the student IEEE was trying to do a recruitment of young people to be in the IEEE. Now, I was already in the IEEE but, hey, can't pass this up, they're gonna do a tour. Not only that, they're going to do a tour of a brand new toll tandem in San Jose.
Man, I gotta see that! (laughs)
So, I went right over — they would only allow 30 for the tour — and I was the first one to sign up. They let in everybody but me. And I said, "Well, why aren't you going to let me in?" And they said, "Our security people have advised us not to let you in."
So, four and a half years later, 2000 miles away, the elephant-like memory of the Bell System had been queried and had responded.
That's amazing. So I said, "Interesting." I didn't complain. I could understand why they wouldn't, and there was no negativity on my part about this at all, and actually they didn't seem too angry or anything, they just said "No."
And the second postscript is I was right about the girl. You know it's just not possible to maintain a close relationship a long way away. About a year after I went off in the Navy she ended up meeting and ultimately marrying another guy. So my motivation for keeping all the phone calls going was well based. Needing to stay in touch turned out not to be a spurious belief on my part.
I think I can say categorically that I've never ever done anything that the Bell System wouldn't think was an appropriate thing since then, I've paid for my phone calls, I'm still an AT&T local and long distance subscriber, I think they did a wonderful thing for America building the network they did. I understand what the political thought process was in '84 and am almost okay with it. The political process in '96 was classically stupid, and failed, with the Telecom Act of '96, so I think AT&T has come to a worse end than it really should have, but certainly from a technological point of view it's a modern miracle. The stuff I do nowadays basically has to do with communication systems in other countries, and I can assure you that as far as sophistication in any dimension you want to go America still has the best and most amazing system of anywhere, including all the cellular advances and all of that. It's owing to a bunch of folks who had the money and the mission to sit down and do a good job, and they did.
This is great John, thank you very much. I really appreciate it.
Can you give us a bit of a biographical sketch?
Sure. I was born in 1947 in a very small town in Texas. It was a bedroom community for a Dow Chemical plant. Most of them men in town were engineers. It was a very interesting place for a small kid to grow up, because you had lots and lots of smart people around and lots of people with engineering and technical backgrounds.
Did you sort of naturally gravitate to engineering as a result of that environment?
I don't know. I'm an engineer, both of my grandfathers were engineers, my father and all of my uncles were my engineers or the equivalent. My children are engineers.
So "gravitating," I don't know whether that's the right word for it. Maybe it's genetic. My mother believes it's a recessive trait, so...
but it was a town in which knowing things about science and technology were considered good, and where there were a lot of people who were natively interested in that sort of thing. It was a good environment from that perspective, although it didn't relate to this topic exactly perfectly. We moved from Texas to Michigan in September of 1963 when I was 16 years old. And I went to high school there for two years. I dropped out of high school in September of '65. I have no high-school diploma. Despite that, I went to Rice in Houston as an undergraduate. Ultimately I went on to get a Ph.D.
It's a myth that you have to graduate from high school. Michigan and Michigan State refused me because I had not graduated from a Michigan high school, but MIT, and Case Institute and Rice said "Hey, come on," so I picked Rice because it was the least expensive of the three. That, of course, was an issue back then.
So, I was there for five years, and in an effort to avoid the draft, I mean get degrees.
After the Navy and graduate school at Stanford I went to work for a small company called ARGOSystems, that no longer exists, it was bought by Boeing some years ago. The principal reason I took that job was that it was one mile from my house. My wife was also in the Ph.D. program at Stanford, but a year behind me, and we had one baby and another on the way, so having a job nearby was a good idea. It was characterized by the following job offer, which was: "We do really cool stuff, we can't tell you what it is. You'll love it."
I imagine they were right.
They were right. They were absolutely right. I started there on the first of July, 1977, I worked there six years, taught a year at Cornell, and then started Applied Signal Technology with three other folks and that's where I still am. I'm their Chief Technology Officer.
The above is a ever-so-slightly edited author interview with John Treichler, 2005.
Many thanks to Mio Cohen for transcribing the interview.