Electronic Underground: A look at the history of Hackers and Phreakers

1990 was the year of Operation Sundevil. In a period of three days the U.S. government simultaneously raided BBS systems in many U.S. cities including, Cincinnati, Detroit, Los Angeles, Miami, Newark, Pheonix, Tucson, Richmond, San Diego, San Jose, Pittsburgh and San Francisco. In New York alone there were five simultaneous raids. Never before had there been such a large scale coordinated raid on the electronic underground. The raids resulted in many arrests and the confiscation of countless BBSs and computers.

1990 was the year of Operation Sundevil. In a period of three days the U.S. government simultaneously raided BBS systems in many U.S. cities including, Cincinnati, Detroit, Los Angeles, Miami, Newark, Pheonix, Tucson, Richmond, San Diego, San Jose, Pittsburgh and San Francisco. In New York alone there were five simultaneous raids. Never before had there been such a large scale coordinated raid on the electronic underground. The raids resulted in many arrests and the confiscation of countless BBSs and computers.

During this time, the only person who knew my home phone number and real name was the leader of my crew. The first and last time I talked to him was when he called to tell me about Sundevil. One of our central BBSs had been confiscated. This meant they could link our handles to incriminating messages and text files. He called to warn me not to call any of the BBSs we frequented because it was thought that the Feds were sitting in someone’s garage, waiting for people to log into their accounts so they could trace the number and tie each person to their handle.

Scared shitless and only fourteen years old, I waited till my parents left and burnt a three foot pile of computer printouts, about ten disks, and cleared my hard drive of all the information I had spent the last couple years collecting. I ditched my old school handle forever and decided to take a break from the underground, for a little while at least . . .

In this installment we are going to look at the history of Hackers and Phreakers, their mutual dependence, and the demise of the golden age of the electronic underground.


The term ‘hacker’ is usually attributed to M.I.T.’s Tech Model Railroad Club circa 1960. This club was centered around a communal model railroad which students constantly modified, attempting to outdo each other. They called this tinkering “hacking” and termed themselves “hackers”. When M.I.T. acquired one of the first programmable computers, PDP-1, in 1961, the club quickly abandoned the model railroad in favor of this new toy, but they carried over the term ‘hacking’ to describe the long hours spent programming the PDP-1. During the next couple of decades this group of students would form the nucleus of M.I.T.’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, the world’s leading AI research center.

In 1969, the first high-speed transcontinental computer network was established. This was called the ARPANET, today considered the ancestor of the Internet. For the first time, hackers (essentially, computer nerds of the time) were able to communicate, exchange their findings, and begin exploring the possibilities of an electronic community.

It wasn’t until the 1980’s that similar technology was available to the general public. Suddenly anyone could host a BBS (Bulletin Boards System) accessible to anyone else with a computer and a modem. BBSs popped up everywhere and became centers of knowledge. This new underground community felt that information should be available to everyone, even if it had to be stolen from restricted systems. In service of this ideal, BBSs contained text files full of esoteric information, hacking tutorials, zines, and almost any other type of information imaginable.

As the underground grew, hacking crews began forming. These groups would compete by publishing and distributing text files in which they shared their discoveries and taught their craft. The only way to earn respect within the underground was to write such a text file. Usually, the only way to gain access to the most ‘elite’ (meanig full of underground texts/info) BBSs was to either be published or be part of a respected crew. If you were able to get the phone number of an elite BBS, you’d usually need some type of referral to get an account. It was for this exact reason that I first joined a crew and began writing.

By the late 80’s the electronic underground was rapidly growing in size, skill, and power. There were established and well distributed publications such as Phrack, a complex slang, world famous underground crews like the Legion of Doom, and even classic must-read underground texts such as The Hacker’s Manifesto by Mentor.

As this new generation of hackers became increasingly aggressive, the pre-80’s hacking community began to distance themselves from this new breed of whiz kids. Most old school (pre-80’s) hackers felt that the new kids were vandals stealing information to boost their own rep in the underground. They called them ‘crackers’, not hackers. They insisted that a hacker was a programmer who finds a better way to do something, while a cracker is someone who works on infiltrating systems. As a slogan of the time went, “hackers create things, crackers break them”.

By the 90’s the golden age of hacking was over. To begin with, the government finally began to take notice and crack down on the underground. Secondly, many hacker kids from the 80’s began working on the other side – as security consultants. The underground now found itself pitted against its own mentors. Suddenly, the distinction between ‘black hat’, or darkside, and ‘white hat’ hackers/crackers arose. Black hats were those who continued to break into systems illegally, while the white hats worked to expose security vulnerabilites to defend against the black hats.

Today people are paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to hack corporate and government systems in order to expose and patch up any weaknesses before black hats can get to them.


Phreaking refers to the hacking of phone systems. The name comes from ‘phone phreak’. Though there are reports as far back as the 1870’s of kids tampering with the telephone system, most mark the modern age of phreaking by the exploits of John Draper aka Cap’n Crunch.

Our modern phone systems used to consist of analog tone switiching networks (today they’ve been replaced by digital switches). Just as we dial with tones, calls were routed by a series of tones flicking different switches in order to route a call to its destination. In the early 70’s, John Draper discovered that a whistle given out in boxes of Captain Crunch cereal allowed him to make free long distance calls when blown into a phone. He found that the tone, at 2600hz, ‘opened’ the switch which allowed him to gain control of the phone network (the famous hacker/phreaker magazine ‘2600’ later took this frequency as its name). From then on he was known as Cap’n Crunch and he continued his exploits by creating a small box that emitted this same tone. This became known as a blue box. At the time, a young student and friend of Crunch’s began making and selling blue boxes on the down low. His name was Steve Wozniak. In a couple years he would found Apple Computers.

Crunch’s work ushered in the age of ‘phone boxing’. Each box could be made with parts available at any Radio Shack. The plans for such boxes were easy to find on most BBSs. Each box had a designated color according to its use. They could generate a series of tones that could be used to make free calls, initiate conference calls, mask your phone number from traces, or do virtually anything else a phone was capable of.

By the 80’s, phreaking expanded into the trading of ‘codez’. Codez were usually long distance phone card numbers, numeric passwords for a PBX (a Public Business Exchange is a number set up for business to make toll free calls), or other access numbers which you could use to dial long-distance for free. Phreakers often used programs which would continuously call a long distance company and randomly try access codes, recording only those that worked. You could leave it on over night and wake up in the morning to a fresh list of working codez. This practice of calling a number repeatedly for hours on end became known as ‘war dialing’.

The phreaker was always looking to trade codez for anything of value. In this way, codez becam a kind of currency in the underground. You could trade them for other types of information, access to elite BBSs, or just more codez. For instance, I used to specialize in taking over voicemail boxes (usually 800s) for long distance codez to dial my favorite BBSs or maybe for referral to a new system. In this way, the BBS became a market-place for the exchange of codez of all types. The most valuable finds were ‘virgin’ (newly hacked) codez. If they had been traded too much they might be dead or could have a trace on them.

Unlike hacking, phreaking almost always involved some illegal act. This was usally in the form of stealing phone time, whether it be by fooling a pay phone, rewiring your home phone to use someone else’s line for the night, or using someone else’s phone card. As the codez trade grew, phreaking became associated with the illegal trade of almost any access number – including credit cards, a practice called ‘carding’. A phreaker usually wouldn’t use a credit card number to purchase anything, but most traded them freely for other codez.

Though the underground consisted of many subcultures with their own specialities (software pirates, anarchists, occultists, etc.), the two major players were Hackers and Phreakers. Their relationship was simple: The hackers needed the phreaker’s codez to connect to systems around the country while the phreakers needed the hackers to provide the BBS or other electronic distributions network to trade codez and exchange information under the cover of anonymity, or so they thought . . .

The golden age of the electronic underground ended in 1990 when the federal government struck with operation sundevil.

Take a look at how you got the news in the old days, if you were hip to the burgeoning new network systems. What follows is a link to a page that presents some press releases and prepared remarks by officials concerning Operation Sundevil, in good ol’ text file form.


You can contact Phronimus at pmainframe@yahoo.com

Author: Phronimus Mainframe

News Service: Blu Magazine

URL: http://www.blumagazine.net

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