What is to Comcast as phreak was to AT&T
February 15, 2011 2:17 AM   Subscribe

Is there a contemporary equivalent to phreaking? Are there (dis)organized groups that steal bandwidth?

This is not a 'how do I steal that innernet' question, but rather one about whether or not there exists some sort of subculture or movement that parallels phreaking with respect to scamming internet service providers.

I feel sort of ignorant asking this, but is the way a home computer interacts with an ISP such that messing with a low level hardware sort of approach is essentially rendered moot by superior chops on the glowbox?
posted by solipsophistocracy to Computers & Internet (14 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
The contemporary equivalent is using other people's wifi without authorisation.
posted by atrazine at 2:29 AM on February 15, 2011

I know a few people with hacked cable modems.

But I would say there isn't a new group. It's been the same people the whole time.
posted by j03 at 2:45 AM on February 15, 2011

I'm not talking about stealing people's wifi. My understanding was always that, at least early on, freaks were about fucking with the phone company as much as they were about exploring the tech. Is there no active geek rage against ISPs, or is that just something people keeps to themselves these days?
posted by solipsophistocracy at 3:10 AM on February 15, 2011

Is there no active geek rage against ISPs

ISPs are the wrong layer—BBS would be a closer analogy. And to answer your question, most phreakers went the way of the dinosaur after ESS5 was installed nationally and effectively killed "boxes."
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:00 AM on February 15, 2011

once the phone system switched from in-band signalling to out-of-band signalling, most of the approaches associated with classic phreaking just plain stopped being viable - there's no set of tones you can blast into the audio part of a phone service that'll convince the exchange you've just dropped in a coin, or are approved for long distance calls, or whatever. the various colour boxes are useless these days.

there are approaches to messing with the network layer that have some of the same vibe to them, but they're not aimes at the local ISP but at whatever remote site you're poking at.
posted by russm at 5:12 AM on February 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm not talking about stealing people's wifi. My understanding was always that, at least early on, freaks were about fucking with the phone company as much as they were about exploring the tech. Is there no active geek rage against ISPs, or is that just something people keeps to themselves these days?

Well with phone phreaking there were a lot more reasons for large scale hacking, it was a huge automated system (probably the biggest system most people interacted with regularly), it relied on security through obscurity (which encouraged research and exploit development), and defeating it had a lot of real benefits (spending a lot of time on BBSes, especially long distance, could be prohibitively expensive).

These days although nobody has a lot of love for cable companies and other ISPs, there's not a whole lot you can do to augment getting high speed broadband on the open Internet. You see more of the phreak mindset in things like modding game consoles or hacking satellite TV security. Or hacking in general really.
posted by burnmp3s at 5:34 AM on February 15, 2011

More appropriately they would be the people who figure out *how* to steal wi fi.

There may be people who have figured out how to gain unauthorized access to things like MANs and cellular data networks.

I think the big difference between the old phreakers and nowadays is that phreakers didn't phony up credentials to access the network as someone else (and billing someone else), they figured out a way to gain unbilled access to the network. They were basically "rooting" the phone system. So I guess they are the equivalent of current hackers who figure out backdoors and use them. Call them "gray hat" hackers- they weren't white hats, because they did use the service and weren't in it to expose flaws. But they weren't black hats, because they weren't trying to disrupt the service.

(Simple example might be back in the day, most companies had FTP sites for software updates. But if you knew the right user/pass combo, you could get into their good stuff and download free software. McAffee was one- they had an "anyuser"sort of account used by their salespeople and field techs to install software in the field.)

The phreakers weren't "fucking with" the phone company, they were just gaining access so they didn't have to pay, and learning how to game a system. They had no agenda against them. At least until the phone company started prosecuting them.
posted by gjc at 5:40 AM on February 15, 2011

I agree that the closest analogue nowadays is hacking cable modem profiles to get uncapped service.

Or hacking DirecTV cards, to get free cable, though that has always had a commercial side to it since these were sold on the black market.
posted by smackfu at 6:12 AM on February 15, 2011

What about unlocking cell phones? There's a bit of "the system can't control us" energy that goes along with it.
posted by salvia at 6:45 AM on February 15, 2011

There's fundamental difference between phones and the internet. Phreaking the phone company meant going past its limitations and controls, like paying for long distance or getting free calls on a payphone (like I used to do with a redbox back in high school).

I don't think its fair to dismiss cracking wifi as its essentially the same thing. As far as direct hacks on the ISP, the only ones I can think of is hacking your cable modem to break past the speed limitations or some workaround to get past throttling policies/packet inspection. Both of which are easy to detect via automation, unlike the earlier analog phone hacks.

The thing about the internet is that there's really no long distance fees or anything. You can connect to anything with an IP address. Where's the incentive to do anything more than either steal bandwidth or get past throttling policies? The only exception I can think of is people working against censorship like getting past the various Islamic/Chinese firewalls.
posted by damn dirty ape at 7:43 AM on February 15, 2011

I'd say the contemporary equivalent is hacking. Specifically, breaking into websites and servers and either stealing data or taking control of the computer. The botnet folks are the high end of this, but there's plenty of low end breakins every day done by folks who are mostly exploring for fun. And like the old phreaking scene there's a lot of just-barely-underground community, technique sharing, etc.

The phreaking → hacking shift happened explicitly in the early 90s, with zines like 2600 straddling the two communities. A big shift in the past five years has been how much money is involved, particularly when it comes time to selling identities or access to botnets for DoS or spamming.

I'm currently enjoying reading Fatal System Error: The Hunt for the New Crime Lords Who are Bringing Down the Internet, an account of one guy's work fighting against botnet hackers.
posted by Nelson at 8:40 AM on February 15, 2011

Not all of the phreak boxes are dead. Red, blue, green, and black were eliminated by using digital lines and out-of-band signalling. Silver only worked on certain systems and clear boxes only on certain payphones, both of which are obsolete.

Some of the other boxes still function to spoof a PBX or spoof caller ID, or to wiretap, etc.
posted by Mister Fabulous at 9:07 AM on February 15, 2011

Yeah, if you've lived through all these eras, there is a clear DNA path all the way from phreaking to modern hacking of game consoles or whatever. You can ascribe certain financial motivations, such as BBS fees, but those mostly came after the big era of phreaking. I would say that the earliest phreaks did it for the thrill of breaking the code and getting away with it.

There was something of a philosophical aspect to this, which was the monopoly-derived over-pricing of long distance service. You can see some of this emerge in the old "netheads vs. bellheads" feud, now clearly won by the former, but re-emerging (arguably) as the net neutrality debate.

Today, the phone company isn't even such a target. It isn't a monopoly in the US anymore, and corporate behemoths such as Microsoft (or even Apple) have taken over its menacing mien in the public mind. Today, technology is much more widely available, and people focus their hacking efforts on things that impact daily life much more than long distance -- jailbreaking iPhones, that sort of thing. Certainly there's a huge teenage culture of website hacking at the dullard level. Partly it's technical -- there isn't much use or reason to hack your ISP, not to mention it's fiendishly difficult vs. using a cereal box whistle -- and partly it's just a visible layer issue -- you don't see your packet-switching, you see the websites that you interact with.

Make no mistake, the pervasive technology we all live with isn't going away, so the spirit of phreaking will continue, but the way you ask the question suggests you want a certain form of this interaction when the architecture dictating that form has completely changed.
posted by dhartung at 11:48 AM on February 15, 2011

Thanks a lot, ya'll. I didn't mean to imply that phreaker disdain for the phone companies was somehow orthogonal to the drive to explore the technology, but I always got the impression that there was a strong hate on for Ma Bell (though perhaps that was not only because it was a monopolistic institution but also because, like burnmp3s said, the security through obscurity ideology made the two somewhat intractable).

When you contract services from an ISP, are you really paying for anything other than the rate limiting modem and access to all the wire? I guess if you don't have a static IP, then you're also sort of 'renting' whatever IP they assign you temporarily?
posted by solipsophistocracy at 2:23 PM on February 15, 2011

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