Slate has reprinted the piece that Ron Rosenbaum wrote for Esquire in 1971, explaining to the world that there was an underground movement of people hacking the phone system. (Rosenbaum is now a columnist for Slate.) According to the article’s new introduction and followup piece by Rosenbaum reflecting on its impact — and to the New York Times obituary for Steve Jobs — this article inspired Jobs and Wozniak to start building blue boxes themselves, an effort that made them several thousand dollars.
It has been reported (though I can’t recall the source at the moment) that this is the article that caused AT&T to turn its employees into common thieves. The idea that people might have access to this information frightened them so much that they literally sent their people out to steal the copies of this issue of Esquire from every public library in the country (of course they missed a few). Although this was long before the days of the Internet and the “Streisand effect“, it did have the result that those who had access to the article had a tendency to photocopy it and pass it around, so AT&T’s ham-fisted attempt at censorship probably gave the article far more exposure than it ever would have had in the first place.
I would daresay that one article probably had a significant effect on our modern way of life. For one thing, it taught us that “security through obscurity” doesn’t work, and for another it forced AT&T and other phone companies to modernize their phone networks (probably much earlier than they would have otherwise intended) to prevent the type of “toll fraud” made possible by the blue box, and that made it much easier for alternative long distance carriers to offer their services.
Although I never had the technical skills to build a blue box, I definitely wanted to know how they worked. The copy of Esquire at my local library had already gone missing but I discovered they still had a copy at the Grand Rapids public library. Apparently the librarians there had apparently been tipped off about AT&T’s attempts to make that issue disappear, so they were keeping it behind the desk and you had to request it from a librarian. Which I did, and then promptly asked where the photocopy machine was. The librarian looked me over and said, “You’re not going to copy that article, are you?” and I said, “Oh, yes I am!” She clearly disapproved, but still pointed me in the direction of the copier (the alternative would have been to attempt to forcibly pry the magazine back out of my hands!). That copy of the article went back home with me and got shared with a few interested friends, and at least two of them later got jobs in the telecommunications field.
Of course, nowadays it would be a simple task for any modern computer to generate the same multifrequency tomes that blue boxes generated, but the last telephone company in the country to actually use that signaling method dropped it on June 15, 2006. And now we have computers and the Internet and VoIP, but I have a feeling that much of that might still not be in existence had it not been for that one article, which literally gave birth to an entire community of hackers, many of whom later went on to do great things and to build the networks we have today. It’s funny how one thing that seems so small at the time — in this case, one magazine article — can create such ripples throughout society.