IPhone’s Full Circle of Irony, The

iPhone’s Full Circle of Irony, The

Coffin, Bill

Upon its debut this summer, the Apple iPhone took the world by storm as the sexiest piece of personal technology since Apple last turned things upside down with its now-ubiquitous iPod. The iPhone, which marks Apple’s first venture into the telecom market, kicked off with an exclusive (and lucrative) deal with AT&T so that it will be the only service carrier available to iPhone users for the next five years. Or will it?

Barely two months after the iPhone’s release, New Jersey teenager George Hotz spent most of his summer break with a new iPhone, a soldering iron and a strong desire to make his phone work on T-Mobile’s network. On August 21, Hotz posted on his blog that he had successfully hacked the phone to operate outside of AT&T, and listed instructions for how others could repeat the effect. Numerous software companies are now racing to unlock the iPhone to other carriers by purely software-based methods. So much for exclusivity.

Meanwhile, two weeks earlier, an enigmatic figure named Joe Engressia died of a heart attack at the age of 58. Far from a household name, his obituary nevertheless received feature status in the New York Times. While few realized the subtle link between his life’s work and the recent iPhone hack, the two were indeed connected in a web of risk and reward that has been helping to shape the telecommunications industry for decades.

In 1957, Engressia, a child genius who was blind since birth and fascinated with listening to telephone recordings, realized that if he whistled into the phone at a certain pitch, the recordings would stop. As it turned out, Engressia had perfect pitch and could whistle at exactly 2600 Hz-the precise frequency used by the phone company to take control of a trunk line, from which any variety of further calls could be made. All Engressia had to do was call a toll-free 800 number and whistle into the phone, and he could connect to anywhere in the world for free. In the years that followed, Engressia found like-minded “phreaks” (phreak = phone + freak) with whom to share notes and enjoy a sense of community. It was from this growing subculture that Engressia (a.k.a. The Whistler) met John Draper.

At that time, phreaks were trying all sorts of ways to duplicate the frequency needed to jack the system, and Engressia discovered that a free whistle being given out in boxes of cereal could be used to that end. He gave this information to Draper, whose extensive use of the whistle made him a phreaking legend. Known as Cap’n Crunch, Draper could manipulate side-by-side payphones and then route a round-the-world call between them so that he could talk into one phone and hear himself about 20 seconds later through the other. At one point, he supposedly learned the code word needed to speak with the president (“Olympus”), got a connection to Richard Nixon’s office phone and pranked Tricky Dick about a fictional toilet paper shortage in Los Angeles.

In 1971, Esquire ran an article about Engressia, Draper and the whole phreaker scene. As a result, both Draper and Engressia underwent criminal investigation. Engressia got five years probation and had to swear off phreaking for good (although he did work as a troubleshooter for Mountain Bell in Denver for a while). Draper actually did some time for wire fraud; it would be the first of a few stints in jail for him.

None of this crushed phreaking, though. If anything, it broke it wide open, and pretty soon any kid with enough technical aptitude, interest in the phone system and disregard for the law was getting in on the act.

Most phreaks were building and using “boxes”-hardware that could hijack phone lines and use them in all sorts of ways the phone company never intended. Most common were blue boxes (supposedly named after the blue jumpsuits of phone company workers) that Draper had used extensively to pioneer ways for beginning free calls. There were also red boxes, which could make a free call from a pay phone by simulating the sound of a coin dropping into the slot. Other boxes enabled users to keep payphones from hanging up, create party lines from different phones, broadcast calls on AM radio or even foil FBI line traces. For years, phreaks chased rumors of a blotto box, which could short out every phone in a given area but was, in fact, just a hoax.

Needless to say, Engressia and Draper were not the only phreaks who ran afoul of the law. But that is not to say that all who phreaked turned out to be mere criminals.

Shortly after Draper’s initial arrest, he was noticed by Steve “Woz” Wozniak, then a student at the University of California at Berkeley. Draper shared his blue box with Woz, who greatly improved the design. Soon, Woz and his friend Steve Jobs began selling blue boxes of their own to others on campus. The money the pair raised from this venture helped fund the creation of-you guessed it-Apple Computer, which in turn, helped laugh the personal computer revolution.

As the PC boomed, bulletin board systems gave phreakers unprecedented ability to kibbitz with each other, but it would never last. A federal crackdown on phreaking in the early 1990s put an end to much of it, and phone systems today make it almost impossible to phreak the system and get away with it. Merely owning a red box-let alone using one-can land you in jail. Today, phreaking is all but a footnote in techno-geek history, but in its place is computer hacking and everything that entails.

Which brings us back to Apple. In an ironic twist that the company’s exphreaker CEO must surely appreciate on some level, iPhone hacker George Hotz has since been given a Nissan 350Z and three more iPhones as payment for the one he modified. Plus, he enjoys celebrity status in the open-source community and among anyone who appreciates sticking it to a major corporation. Meanwhile, Apple must contend not only with the diminishing value of its AT&T deal, but has threatened legal action against the various software companies looking to sell programs that duplicate Hotz’s work without having to break open the iPhone and solder its innards.

So it goes, where the corporate efforts of one phreaker are threatened to be undone by another-a next-generation renegade geek whose own love for technology and disdain for rules was practically pioneered by his turtlenecked nemesis.

Copyright Risk Management Society Publishing, Inc. Oct 2007

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved