Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Hackers, Phreaks, and Jammers

The man shown here doesn't seem like much of a danger to anyone. Armed only with a plastic whistle that came free in a box of Cap'n Crunch, along with an earlier version of the 'black box' in his left hand (actually an iPhone), this man was once regarded as a dangerous criminal mastermind, one whose activities were worthy of the scrutiny of the FBI and InterPol.

He's John Thomas Draper, a legendary figure as the first 'phone phreak' to find a way to get free calls through the Bell Telephone system. Phones in the early 1970's used a series of tones to activate and direct calls; using the toy whistle, Draper was able to fool the system into authorizing long-distance calls without any charges; it just so happened that the frequency of the whistle -- 2600 Hz -- was the same as the phone company's electronic tone. Draper and other "phreaks" used the trick for prank calls, to call each other, and to test their ability to route the call over as long a distance as possible. Among those who found this exciting were a couple of California kids who have since become well-known -- Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.

The "phreak" culture, in retrospect, wasn't really all that dangerous. All they "stole" was phone time; they didn't seek to defraud customers, steal peoples' identities, or collect anyone's data.  But as the use of phones, and phone modems, became more and more widespread, the stakes of this kind of activity -- or hacktivity as some call it -- have increased. Hackers who have become familiar with weaknesses in operating systems, encryption programs, Java scripts, and various "Trojan Horse" programs that gain access by seeming innocuous, have targeted corporate and government entities, and some of them quite gleefully seize personal financial information when they can get it. Some, such as Wikileaks and the Anonymous group, see theirs as important investigative work, as well as a political jab against what they regard as the government's unjustified power to keep things secret. Others, such as the group of Chinese military hackers associated with the "Comment Crew" in Shanghai, use cyber attacks as a form of political and economic subterfuge.  Still others, the purists I suppose we could call them, simply hack to show that they can; in them, the playful pride of the original phreaks lives on.

Spammers, of course, are the most annoying class of Internet junk, and their more dangerous cousins the Phishers are all to willing to lay traps for the unsuspecting.  Few of them, however, seem to have any larger agenda other than stealing money.

Jammers are perhaps the most politically purposeful of all who have sought to use the media against the media, and many of them use a wide variety of techniques other than the the Internet, though the 'Net often amplifies their effects.  The Guerrilla Girls made feminist incursions in the media, wearing gorilla suits, and the Yes Men famously staged fake press conferences, at one of which they pretended to be representatives of the Union Carbide corporation who wished to apologize -- as the real firm had not -- for the chemical disaster at Bhopal in India.

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