Phreak World


When I touched down in Tokyo a month ago, my first priority was to secure a mobile phone as it's nearly impossible to socialize in this city without one. Luckily, an old friend had an extra he was willing to part ways with; a vintage prepaid model that had been passed from foreigner to foreigner over the past year or so. It was something of an organic ghost phone, totally anonymous as nobody had any knowledge of the original owner's identity or whereabouts. When I use it I simply call someone, let it ring twice, hang up, wait for a call back and voila - my ability to communicate while in Japan comes completely free of charge.

This sort of behaviour is of course quite common. The manipulation of telecommunications systems, whether it comes in the rudimentary form I've just described, or if it involves a slightly more sophisticated approach, such as calling someone's mobile via Skype, is now a perfectly mainstream, acceptable pursuit. But it wasn't always this way. The evolution of the phone, from a static device to dynamic force of nature, started sometime in the late 1950s with the advent of "phreaking"; a slang term for a sub-culture of people who experimented with telecommunications systems in their spare time.

The exact details of the origin of phreaking are vague, but it is generally accepted that the practice started to spread after a 7-year-old blind boy, armed with heightened pitch sensitivity, whistled into a phone at precisely 2600 hertz and accidentally cracked the network's security code. The boy, Joe Engressia, would later go on to meet  John Draper, a Vietnam-vet turned pirate radio operator who built the first phreaking tools, known as "blue boxes", in the late '60s.

After Esquire magazine published an article chronicling the exploits of Engressia and Draper, two tech-obsessed high-school kids tracked them down in order to learn how to build similar devices. Those kids, one Steve Wozniak and one Steve Jobs, would later go on to found Apple, which would eventually release the iPhone.

Today, we are all phreakers. If you spin a globe and place your finger on it at random, odds are that you've just pinpointed a city or country whose citizens are obsessed with not only mobile phones, but the manipulation and customization of those phones. In Africa, a continent where "the internet age" never fully materialized, mobile sales are booming and average people are using their phones for extraordinary purposes. Farmers in Ghana are using SMS messaging to gain access to global markets and small businesses in Kenya rely on similar services to handle their cashflow. Meanwhile, these same phones, specifically the metals needed to make them tick, have been indicted as the driving market force behind the ongoing bloodshed in eastern Congo.

Mobile phones and the conveniences they afford have become the modus operandi of modern civilization. In the past year alone, phones have been credited with raising gender equality in developing countries and fostering revolution in Egypt. They've also been blamed for the riots in England and have allowed criminal syndicates from around the world to pilfer millions of dollars from unsuspecting bank accounts.

In Afghanistan, the war between NATO and the Taliban is becoming a contest for influence over the nation's phone system, with the Taliban blowing up mobile towers just as quickly as the Americans can put them up. Perhaps the most telling bit of recent phreaking news is the Carrier IQ controversy, in which a 25-year old Android developer discovered that the clandestine app, found on most smartphones, has been secretly recording everything you do, down to the last keystroke.

And so It would seem that he who controls the GSM, controls the world.