Cyberpunks and Phone Phreaks

Acoustic-Modem, 1982

Acoustic-Coupled Modem, Atari Magazine, November 1982.

From my library: Cyberpunk by Katie Hafner and John Markoff; subtitled Outlaws and Hackers on the Computer Frontier. The book details the search for Kevin Mitnick, a computer hacker and phone phreak who made the top of the FBI’s most wanted list. The authors introduce their investigation by saying:

We set out to investigate a computer underground that is the real-life version of cyberpunk, science fiction that blends high technology with outlaw culture.

Markoff was a reporter for the NY Times who gained fame through his investigative reporting of the search for Mitnick, and that story is retold in the first few chapters of the book.

Rereading the book after nearly 20 years was quite revealing: in the 80’s the phone system and acoustical modems were the devices used for remote access to computer systems. Now relegated to computer museums, the acoustical modem was usually connected to a computer terminal, and had a receptacle for attaching the telephone headset. You dialed the remote computer and placed the headset onto the modem; Communication was slow and progress often interrupted, but we did manage to get some work done with this prototypical computer interface.

Phone phreaks gained access to computer systems by whistling Bell System codes into a phone. They discovered that the toy whistle that came in the Cap’n Crunch cereal box was perfect for that purpose, but passwords were needed. Mitnick was famous for obtaining passwords by searching through waste paper and by befriending unsuspecting computer operators. Once a dial-up was completed, the hacker used the terminal to access confidential information on the compromised computer system. All this could be done without leaving a trail for the FBI to follow.

This book, once the cutting-edge of high-tech reporting, is now a curiosity, but I found it very interesting to rediscover this bit of history in my library.


Day 4: Cyberpunk: Outlaws and Hackers on the Computer Frontier (John Markoff with Katie Hafner) (1991).


About carto

Retired software engineer who grew up in Montana, went to Montana State College in Bozeman, and moved to California to work at Stanford Research Institute (SRI). Carto's Logbook is about photography, travel and adventure; Mt. Maurice Times is tall tales mostly biographical; Carto's Library is about books I've read and liked.
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