Saturday, January 19, 2013

Edward Tufte was a Proto-Phreaker (#aaronswnyc Part 1)

In December of 1962, Edward Tufte, who we now know as the Display of Quantitative Information guy, was an undergraduate at Stanford. He and a friend, an electrical engineer, had figured out how to trick AT&T's telephone system into allowing them free long-distance phone calls. Their "blue box" had vacuum tubes, capacitors, resistors and switches in a plug board, but it made the multifrequency tones used by the telephone switching network to control long distance calls.

Tufte and his friend decided that they would make the longest long distance phone call in history. They called New York "Time of Day" via Hawaii, and left the call open for about two months. (For those of you youngsters who don't know what "Time of Day" was, it was a number you called, and a Bell System female voice would say "The time is now ____ and ___ seconds". And would repeat every 10 seconds.)

A couple of months later, Tufte got a phone call from a security executive at AT&T. "I think I know what you're calling about" said Tufte. The caller was a bit of a techy, and expressed admiration for the pair. Some graduate students at other universities had done similar things, but Tufte and his friend were the first undergraduates. And he complained their system was of poor quality. The amount of noise in their oscillator made it hard to for the AT&T security people to figure out what they were doing.

But why did they shut off the call? the AT&T guy asked. "Once we had set the record, we were done" said Tufte.

AT&T could have ruined Tufte's life by bringing in the police, but they didn't. They made sure that Tufte and his friend told no one, didn't try to sell their system to the Mafia, and didn't cause anyone harm.

Edward Tufte on January 20, 2013
CC BY-NC-SA by Schwartzray
Except for a few late-night cocktail parties, Tufte never told anyone the story, until tonight, at the New York City memorial gathering for Aaron Swartz. Tufte had gotten to know Aaron at Stanford, where Swartz was briefly a student. As Tufte tells it, Swartz had been faced with a dilemma- a final exam conflicted with a Tufte lecture. Somehow Swartz made it to both.

After Swartz's brush with the law when he was caught downloading JSTOR articles at MIT, Swartz gave his friend Tufte a call. "Would you happen to know Bill Bowen?" Of course Tufte did, dating to his early career as a professor at Princeton when Bill Bowen was serving as its President. Apparently Bowen had been asked by the Mellon Foundation to help JSTOR figure out what to do about the Aaron Swartz situation. As President of the Mellon Foundation, Bowen, now retired, had helped create JSTOR.

So Tufte decided it was time to out himself as an ex-phone phreaker. He wrote Bowen an email. If AT&T could decline to ruin Tufte's life, maybe JSTOR could find the courage to make sure that Swartz's abilities would not be wasted. Tufte was phreaking before Captain Crunch, before Steves Wozniak and Jobs. Those guys turned out to have lots more to contribute.

JSTOR did the right thing. Not only did it tell the Federal prosecutors that it had come to a satisfactory arrangement with Swartz, but it took significant steps to advance Swartz's (and JSTOR's!) agenda af making information more accessible to everyone. (more on this in Part 2, tomorrow)

But apparently MIT wasn't quite as happy about the situation. And Stephen Heymann, a prosecutor in a US Attorney's office that's been described as one of the nation's most immoral, wanted Swartz's conviction for his resumé and wouldn't let go. They let loose a superseding indictment containing 13 felonies, and threatened Swartz with 35 years in prison if he didn't plead guilty to felonies and serve jail time.

Under the pressure of prosecution, and in the stupidity of a no-win situation, Aaron Swartz committed suicide a week ago. We'll never know what he might have contributed in his next 26 years.

But the relentless and disproportionate prosecution of young, computer-adept disruptors continues.

Sitting just behind me at the memorial was a fellow known as "Weev". Weev looked a lot better than his mug-shot, but he's been convicted of a felony and faces 10 years in prison for "identity theft" which is all that's left of a prosecution stemming from his exposure of a security hole in AT&T's implementation of iPad signups. That's right, AT&T screws up their security, and Weev gets prosecuted because because he's acted inconsiderately and used IRC without thinking how it might sound to a prosecutor.

The outrage that simmered at the memorial service tonight will probably explode and ruin Stephen Heymann's life; the career of Carmen Ortiz, the head of the Massachussets Prosecutors office, is officially toast. It's mean, but I'll probably enjoy reading about how sad that is. But there are still real people feeling the boot of a system that doesn't want to change itself to apply justice to a changing world. Maybe we should help them.

Update (1/20/13): @dancow has posted a transcript of Tufte's remarks.
Update (1/22/13): corrected description of signaling network based on contributed comment
Update (7/29/13): somehow I missed the publication of Phil Lapsley's Exploding the Phone. Oh, and don't miss the episode of Radiolab from a year ago on Joybubbles.
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  1. Just as a point of historical accuracy, it should be noted that Edward Tufte, regardless of his claim, did _not_ "invent" or create the first blue box.

    According to the new book, "Exploding the Phone," by Phil Lapsley, on the history of phone phreaking from 1960 to 1980, notes it was Ralph Barclay.

    Barclay, an 18-year old college student at the time, was walking through the engineering library at Washington State College when he spotted the November 1960 issue of the Bell System Technical Journal (BSTJ), which had only been out for a week, and when Barclay noticed on the cover of the journal an article entitled "Signalling Systems for Control of Telephone Switching," he became very intrigued.

    In that seminal article, which was almost the first (and certainly most detailed and revealing article) AT&T/Bell ever published on the new in-band, multi-frequency (MF) signalling system AT&T had just begun to implement a year or so beforehand, the BSTJ laid out the frequencies of the dual-tone or MF pairs for each dialed number, and how AT&T long-distance operators would also use "ST" and "KP" audio signals to make long-distance toll calls for customers from their semi-automated switchboards.

    Bell even published basic schematics in that article for the signalling circuitry involved in generating the MF tones used over the voice circuit to make toll calls. D'oh!

    Thus, Bell itself publicly exposed the "billion-dollar flaw" in their newly implemented switching and signalling system, as the BSTJ was commonly available through most college engineering and other university libraries.

    Barclay, a rather bright and insightful lad, apparently, had then gone on, after reading the article noted, within a month to create a duplicate of Bell's signalling circuitry using analog components to fabricate the first known "blue box," and to make unlimited, free long-distance phone calls.

    So, Barclay was actually the first, and by December, 1960 was using his blue box to make free phone calls.

    He also happened to have painted the metal enclosure box for his device a lovely shade of blue, hence the term "blue box."

    Sidebar: Tufte's claim of having made the "longest long-distance call" also seems rather dubious. Any LD call lasting for 2 months would have either been automatically shutdown by central office circuitry, or would drop a "trouble card" resulting in manual disconnection, most likely.

    Also, just to correct your comment that blue boxes "made the 2600Hz tones used by the telephone switching network to control long distance calls," that is incorrect. Blue boxes used multi-frequency pairs, or dual tones (MF), not simply 2600 hz for signalling to make free long-distance calls. Single-frequency signalling (SF) using 2600 hz was an earlier, 1950's-era system being phased out by the early 60's. See the wiki entry on Joe Engressia ("The Whistler") for an example of someone who could do that just by whistling with his lips, or, as Captain Crunch learned from a group of blind "proto-phreaks," you could use a slightly modified "Cap'n Crunch" cereal promotional prize whistle.

    1. Wow, thanks for that! What Tufte told me was that the AT&T security guy told them that while they weren't the first to figure out how to make a "blue box", they were the first undergraduates he'd encountered that had done it. Hard to say where Barclay fits in, whether AT&T knew about him, for example.

  2. If Tufte told you "... that the AT&T security guy told them that while they weren't the first to figure out how to make a 'blue box', they were the first undergraduates he'd encountered that had done it," then not only is Tufte's public claim at Swartz's memorial false, but he must have _known_ it was untrue when he made it.

    And, it's not the first time he's made this bogus claim.**

    I'll leave it to others to ponder why Tufte would have knowingly made such a false claim.

    Considering the facts, I'm also dubious about his being any kind of equal co-creator of an early blue box, given that his friend ("housemate") was an electrical engineer, while Tufte, at the time, was a 19 or 20-year old undergrad studying statistics at Stanford, not a hard science.

    ** It also appears Tufte has made claim to being the "inventor" of the blue box before -- in a Dec. 18, 2006 entry on the website "Pattern Recognition," Imran Akbar notes having attended a lecture at Stanford University by Tufte a few weeks before, where Akbar's summary notes on the lecture include (excerpt): "Claimed to have invented the ‘blue box’ in 1962, before Captain Crunch, and was raided by AT&T."


    So, Tufte did not invent the blue box, probably was not even the main creator of the early box he and his engineer housemate made, it's dubious he and his friend made the "longest long-distance call" ever made (in duration or distance), the reference to "via Hawaii" is bogus, and this is not the first time he's made specific claim to being the "inventor of the first blue box" when he knows that it is not true. Wow. Not cool.

  3. "Hard to say where Barclay fits in, whether AT&T knew about him, for example."

    As for Ralph Barclay, the first _known_ inventor of the blue box, he was eventually busted as a result of being wiretapped by Pacific Telephone, an AT&T subsidiary at the time.

    As per Lapsley's "Exploding the Phone" book on the history of phreaking, Barclay was arrested on Sept. 15, 1961, and was convicted of the misdemeanor of having made an illegal free long-distance phone call.

    The judge in Barclay's case was rather sympathetic:

    "The judge rendered his verdict. 'When I was a kid,' he said, 'we used to freeze water into the shape of nickels to put into payphones to make long-distance calls. This is nothing more than a new and ingenious way to do the same thing. You pleaded guilty. I'm just going to give you a suspended sentence.'"

    "'The [Pacific Telephone] investigator wasn't too happy with that,' Barclay says."

    Barclay was also rather modest:

    When Phil Lapsley, in the course of the lengthy research of his book, said to Barclay, "You were the first!", to his credit he [Barclay] responded, "Well, I don't know for sure that I was the first, but I was definitely the first to get caught!" 8^}

    1. It's interesting to think about how different the world was in 1961. News about the arrest of someone for not paying for a phone call in Washington State probably went nowhere. Today, the world knows in an hour what someone says in New York City.