[ISN] Blind Whistling Phreaks and the FBI's Historical Reliance on Phone Tap Criminality

From: InfoSec News <alerts_at_private>
Date: Tue, 1 Jul 2008 01:41:59 -0500 (CDT)

By David Price
June 30, 2008

In 1971, Ron Rosenbaum's Esquire article, "Secrets of the Little Blue 
Box", introduced America to phone phreaks, a subterranean network of 
geek explorers who probed the global phone system as the world's largest 
pre-Internet interconnected machine.  A star of Rosenbaum's piece was 
Joe Engressia, a blind telephonic hacking pioneer with perfect pitch and 
a high IQ, who seized control over phone systems by whistling dual-tone, 
multi-frequency pitches into telephone receivers.

Before the introduction of modern phone-switching technology, audible 
tones were used to connect phones with distant destinations. As a young 
child, Engressia was obsessed with the telephone, finding comfort within 
the steady blare of the dial tone. At the age of 5, he discovered he 
could dial the phone by clicking the receiver's hang-up switch, and at 7 
he accidentally discovered that whistling specific frequencies could 
activate phone switches. From there, experimentation, brilliance, 
networking and perseverance led Engressia to probe weaknesses in the 
network that allowed him to make free phone calls. His mastery over this 
global machine was liberating, if not obsessive.

As Rosenbaum was completing his 1971 article, Engressia was arrested for 
theft of telephone services. At the time it appeared that the phone 
company had only recently become aware of his activities - though a few 
years earlier he had been expelled from the University of South Florida 
for selling fellow students long-distance calls for a dollar each.

Rosenbaum's 1971 piece put the spotlight on Engressia, as newspapers, 
magazines and television programs ran features on him and his 
activities. Engressia became a cultural icon, or proto-hacker 
stereotype, as characters with his abilities were written into cyberpunk 
novels and Hollywood screenplays with characters like Sneakers.  Erwin 
"Whistler" Emory.

Engressia's IQ loomed somewhere above 170, but as an adult he wished to 
live as a 5 years old, founding his own church, the Church of Eternal 
Childhood. His wish to remain an eternal child appears to be linked to 
the repeated sexual abuse he reported suffering from a nun at the school 
for the blind that he attended as a child, as well as the academic 
pressures that led him to miss out on playtime as a child. In 1991, 
Engressia legally changed his name to Joybubbles. Until his death this 
last year, Joybubbles ran a phone "story line" in Minneapolis, where 
callers would call and hear him tell a different children's story each 
week - adopting a cadence and personal style reminiscent of his hero, 
Mister Rogers.

When Joybubbles died last year, I used the Freedom of Information Act to 
request his FBI file, mostly just to see what the FBI had made of this 
explorer who had loved and wandered through this pre-Internet global 
network.  I figured there might be something in his file relating to his 
1971 arrest, but I hadn't expected to find an FBI and phone company 
investigation of him from two years before this arrest.

An August 28, 1969, FBI General Investigative Division report describes 
an investigation by Kansas City telephone company of three subjects in 
Kansas City, Miami and Chicago, who had "discovered a means to intercept 
and monitor WRS and Autovon" phone lines. Autovon (Automatic Voice 
Network) was a Defense Communication Agency telephone network used for 
nonsecure military phone communication. The FBI's report mistakenly 
claimed that Autovon was a "top secret telephone system utilized only by 
the White House", when in fact Autovon was really a nonclassified 
military telephone system, designed to link military installations even 
under the unpleasant conditions of nuclear annihilation.

The FBI believed that Engressia was "the 'brains' in this matter and was 
an electronics genius with an I.Q. of one hundred ninety." Even though 
the FBI's investigation had "not revealed any national security aspect 
to their activities" and phone company officials stated that this 
group's use of free phone calls had been "strictly for their own 
amusement and [the] harassment of [the] phone company", the FBI's 
investigation reports were filed under the heading: "Security matter - 
Espionage: interception of communications."


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Received on Mon Jun 30 2008 - 23:41:59 PDT

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