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Originally published Sunday, March 24, 2013 at 5:36 AM

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‘Exploding the Phone’: ‘phone phreaks’ take on AT&T

Phil Lapsley’s “Exploding the Phone” tells the true story of the young hackers, including some at Washington State University, who cracked AT&T’s secret and elaborate telephone switching system.

Special to The Seattle Times

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‘Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws Who Hacked Ma Bell’

by Phil Lapsley

Grove Press, 416 pp., $26

If you’ve ever used an Apple product, you owe something to a small turn of history that occurred in 1960 at Washington State University. This discovery came in the college library, when one engineering student happened to notice a copy of the “Bell System Technical Journal” in a periodicals rack.

Inside were enough technical details of AT&T’s telephone switching system for that student to figure out how to create what was most likely the first “blue box,” an electronic spoofing device. The box allowed a user to trick the AT&T switching system to make free long-distance calls, which in that era were quite expensive. In “Exploding the Phone,” Phil Lapsley details this invention, and how the student used it so often one summer in Ephrata, Wash., that the FBI showed up and seized the box, after his calls eventually triggered an AT&T investigation.

Lapsley’s lengthy and detailed history tells the story of how AT&T, which became the biggest and most powerful monopoly in U.S. business history, was defrauded, stymied and harassed by a loose union of students, hippies and outlaws. It’s a bit of a technological treatise, but also a cat-and-mouse game, as the phone hackers tried to outwit Ma Bell.

They called themselves “phone phreaks,” and they took advantage of a weakness in AT&T’s switching devices, which allowed signal and voice to travel on the same channel. “It was a flaw,” Lapsley writes, “that would cost millions, possibly billions, of dollars to fix. It would be discovered again and again over the following twenty years.”

“Exploding the Phone” is a fascinating story but also serves as a cautionary tale, and as a pre-story to today’s computer hacking. What’s particularly interesting is AT&T’s explanation of why they put their technical details into a monthly trade journal, available to the public: They were so powerful, they couldn’t imagine anyone hacking them.

But they were hacked, again and again, and the second half of the book chronicles their attempts to put the genie back into the bottle. Their response was called “Greenstar,” a multidecade effort that would see the company tap more than 33 million phone calls. In the end, it was ultimately technological advances that outwitted the “phreaks,” as much as it was AT&T.

The Apple connection is explained in Steve Wozniak’s preface. Though the WSU student was one of the first to craft a “blue box,” word got around, and two similar entrepreneurs — criminals really — were Wozniak and Steve Jobs, who sold “blue boxes” to their dorm mates.

Wozniak writes about those early exploits with the kind of halcyon haze that comes from being a billionaire, long after the statute of limitations has passed. But Steve Jobs also said Apple wouldn’t have existed without the “blue box.”

In a roundabout way, the WSU library — at any time filled with undergrads working or communicating on Apple products — is in some way responsible for the advent of those very products.

Seattle writer Charles R. Cross is the author of eight books, including “Kicking & Dreaming: A Story of Heart, Soul, and Rock ’N’ Roll.” Originally from Pullman, he first imagined being a writer after finding “Rolling Stone” in the periodical stack of the WSU library.

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