How hackers tricked the US phone system using simple musical tones

While a 2600Hz tone could get you free calls, MF-ing an exchange could get you a whole lot more. For example, you could set up and run a conference facility on an exchange that enabled other phreakers from across America – and even from around the world – to secretly swap the secrets that they had learned.

The devices they built to generate these tones were called 'blue boxes'. With a battery-powered blue box, a phreaker could surf the US telephone network from a roadside payphone. Fraser Lucey was one such phreaker.

In Joe Rosenbaum's aforementioned Esquire article, he describes a meeting with Lucey, who demonstrated the tremendous capabilities of his blue box. First the pair dialled a number known to belong to a phone box in London, and a passing RAF serviceman returning from leave answered it. Then they tried the number of a woman in Paris, but the line was busy.

Next, they called the speaking clock in Sydney, Australia, before finally ringing a recorded weather report in Rome. Phreakers had complete freedom to roam the phone networks of the whole world. However, it was too good to last, and trouble was approaching fast.

After talking to other phreakers, including neighbourhood friends Dennie and Jimmy, Rosenbaum learned about Draper. The article recounts a conversation the pair had, in which Draper explains his motivation for phreaking.

"It's terrible," says Draper, "because Ma Bell is such a beautiful system, but she screwed up. I learned how she screwed up from a couple of blind kids who wanted me to build a device. A certain device. They said it could make free calls. I wasn't interested in free calls. But when these blind kids told me I could make calls into a computer, my eyes lit up. I wanted to learn about computers. I wanted to learn about Ma Bell's computers. So I built that little device."

By this point Draper had further refined his blue box to automate the commands that it sent. Whereas other blue boxes needed to have things typed into them by hand, his was far more precise, and therefore sounded just like another exchange.

"It would [pulse] the number in precise intervals," he told PC Plus magazine, "making it indistinguishable from the phone companies' own equipment." With the power of his supercharged blue box and his extensive knowledge of the commands it was capable of generating, Draper demonstrated to Rosenbaum how you went about routing calls around the phone system, through exchange after exchange.

However, it was a demonstration that he would come to regret for a very long time. "I briefly talked to this Rosenbaum dude, who didn't even tell me what the blind kids had told him, and without checking with me first, he just went ahead and printed it," says Draper. "Some information that he put in the article was correct, but the other information he put in there was absolutely false."

Arrest and trial

Draper knew the game was up when he saw the published article. "While reading it, my jaw dropped," he said. "I was appalled at all the mistakes in the article and how sensationalised it was. I knew that I would inevitably be picked up by the FBI; it was just a matter of time. I immediately went home and ditched my super-automated blue box, notes and anything else that pointed to me for this."

Draper was arrested in May 1972. "All around me, people were going down. Then, in a single day, a major sweep took place, and four people from Seattle, three people from San Jose and five people from LA got busted all at once, within minutes of each other."

"On the way home, I stopped by the 7-Eleven store and parked in an adjacent school yard. Just as I got out of my car, a car pulled up in front and another one pulled up in back, and four men in suits jumped out and grabbed me. I was thrown against the car, handcuffed and read my rights. I was taken to Santa Clara County and booked for toll fraud."

Draper got five years probation. However, in 1977 he went back to jail, again for toll fraud. Once there, he found that serious criminals were interested in phreaking, and he began holding secret lessons for them. "It kept me out of trouble with the rest of the inmates," he told PC Plus. "Nobody would f**k with me."

Today, Draper is a reformed character. He's the Chief Technology Officer at media company En2go, putting all of his technological talent towards legal ends.