THE BLOG
02/21/2014 06:29 pm ET Updated Apr 23, 2014

NO SECURITY: Phreaking Out the Phone Phreaks

NO SECURITY is a new, semi-regular dispatch about tech history, and (sub)culture in the underground and abroad.

On February 11, 2014 the citizens of cyberspace waged an Internet-wide war against the NSA's Mass surveillance program called "The Day We Fought Back". As the story unfolds, it is important to look at the history of mass surveillance, and see what we can learn from it.

While researching the original "Phone Phreaks" of the 1960's for my new film on the history of computer hacking, I came across some shocking revelations regarding our phone privacy which reveal mass surveillance projects that date back to the Kennedy era. Phil Lapsley's excellent book from last year titled "Exploding the Phone" is an exhaustively researched study on the original "Phone Phreaks" and their strained relationship with AT&T and the US Government. The particular revelation I came across is a passage about Project Greenstar. Project Greenstar was a massive phone tapping project by AT&T involving 33 million calls between 1964 and 1970, although conceived in 1962 at the height of Cold War paranoia it was under the auspices of detecting fraud on the lines. This is obviously quite relevant to the 21st Century and can give us a holistic perspective on today's mass surveillance landscape.

From Exploding the Phone:
Project Greenstar went on for more than five and a half years. Between the end of 1964 and May 1970, Greenstar randomly monitored some 33 million U.S. long distance phone calls, a number that was at once staggeringly large and yet still an infinitesimally tiny fraction of the total of long distance calls placed during those years. Of the 33 million calls between 1.5 and 1.8 million were recorded and shipped to New York to be listened to by human ears. "We had to have statistics," said [William] Caming. Statistics they got: they found "at least 25,000 cases of known illegality" and projected that in 1966 they had "on the order of 350,000 [fraudulent] calls nationwide."*

When Project Greenstar was launched in 1962 the main security concern for AT&T was to stop the use of "blue boxes". The users were taking advantage of the uncharted vulnerabilities within the phone system to make toll free calls. This is of course illegal. The use of blue boxes was becoming more widespread while AT&T was becoming increasingly anxious about hackers making free calls. The potential of building a Blue Box had ripened into a real threat. The implications were two-fold. First, the hackers could damage AT&T's profits and, at the same time, undermine their business. Second, there was the concern regarding the perimeters of privacy. This point also highlighted the whole philosophical debate of "private vs. public" an argument we are seeing finally being played out and examined.

Ken Hopper, who was an engineer at Bell Labs, worked in network security and fraud detection. Hopper has said the following with regards to Project Greenstar's approach: "There was no prosecution in those first couple of years. It was so the bad guys would not be aware of the fact that they're being measured."*

In Exploding the Phone we also meet Bill Caming who was AT&T's corporate attorney for privacy and fraud matters. "The greatest caution was exercised," Bill Caming recalls. "I was very concerned about it. The equipment itself was fenced in within the central office so that no one could get to it surreptitiously and extract anything of what we were doing. We took every pain to preserve the sanctity of the recordings."*

There doesn't seem to be an apparent connection between J. Edgar Hoover's FBI or any government agency and AT&T's Project Greenstar. There is no evidence to support that the government was involved in Greenstar whatsoever.

Within the context of Project Greenstar, It's interesting to note that 1962 saw the launch of the first communications satellite; Telstar, which was a joint effort between NASA (USA), GPO (UK), National PTT (FR) and most importantly, it was owned by AT&T's Bell Labs (USA). This is a compelling fact because although the top AT&T executives and attorneys involved with Project Greenstar were sworn to secrecy concerning this surveillance project, they were working alongside these other agencies inventing modern communications.

After the launch of Telstar, President Kennedy made the first satellite based transatlantic call, which ushered in the dawn of satellite communications. I think that both projects gave businesses and the government the tools and template to for mass espionage, even if they were unconnected.

I spoke with Phil Lapsley, the author of Exploding the Phone, and he explained that Project SHAMROCK of 1945 might be a more accurate date to pinpoint the birth of mass surveillance. Project SHAMROCK was the recording of all incoming and outgoing telegraphs via Western Union by NSA predecessor, The Armed Forces Security Agency (AFSA). According to a former CIA agent; Intercepted messages were disseminated to the FBI, CIA, Secret Service, Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD), and the Department of Defense via microfilm. No court authorized the operation and there were no warrants.

Mr. Lapsley also mentioned Project MINARET which was the sister program to Project SHAMROCK. This existed from 1967- 1973. The NSA administered the program, which intercepted information on "subversives" and disseminated their information to the FBI, CIA, Secret Service, Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD), and the Department of Defense.

Mass Surveillance is an old story that has finally tipped the mainstream, thanks to the whistleblowers of the modern era. I'm glad we picked a day to begin fighting back because I think it is going to take some time to dismantle mass surveillance.

*Exploding the Phone by Phil Lapsley. Grove Press 2013