February 6, 2013

Edward Tufte was a phreak

Category: academic,Phreaking — Biella @ 11:09 am

It has been so very long since I have left a trace here. I guess moving to two new countries (Canada and Quebec), starting a new job, working on Anonymous, and finishing my first book was a bit much.

I miss this space, not so much because what I write here is any good. But it a handy way for me to keep track of time and what I do and even think. My life feels like a blur at times and hopefully here I can see its rhythms and changes a little more clearly if I occasionally jot things down here.

So I thought it would nice to start with something that I found surprising: famed information designer, Edward Tufte, a professor emeritus at Yale was a phone phreak (and there is a stellar new book on the topic by former phreak Phil Lapsley.

He spoke about his technological exploration during a sad event, a memorial service in NYC which I attended for the hacker and activist Aaron Swartz. I had my wonderful RA transcribe the speech, so here it is [we may not have the right spelling for some of the individuals so please let us know of any mistakes]:

Edward Tufte’s Speech From Aaron Swartz’s Memorial
Speech starts 41:00 [video cuts out in beginning]
“We would then meet over the years for a long talk every now and then, and my responsibility was to provide him with a reading list, a reading list for life and then about two years ago Quinn had Aaron come to Connecticut and he told me about the four and a half million downloads of scholarly articles and my first question is, ‘Why isn’t MIT celebrating this?’.
[Video cuts out again]
Obviously helpful in my career there, he then became president of the Mellon foundation, he then retired from the Mellon foundation, but he was asked by the Mellon foundation to handle the problem of JSTOR and Aaron. So I wrote Bill Bullen(sp?) an email about it, I said first that Aaron was a treasure and then I told a personal story about how I had done some illegal hacking and been caught at it and what happened. In 1962, my housemate and I invented the first blue box, that’s a device that allows for free, undetectable, unbillable long distance telephone calls. And we got this up and played around with it and the end of our research came when we concluded what was the longest long distance call ever made, which was from Palo Alto to New York time-of-day via Hawaii, well during our experimentation, AT&T, on the second day it turned out, had tapped our phone and uh but it wasn’t until about 6 months later when I got a call from the gentleman, AJ Dodge, senior security person at AT&T and I said, ‘I know what you’re calling about.” and so we met and he said ‘You what you are doing is a crime that would…’, you know all that. But I knew it wasn’t serious because he actually cared about the kind of engineering stuff and complained that the tone signals we were generating were not the standard because they record them and play them back in the network to see what numbers they we were that you were trying to reach, but they couldn’t break though the noise of our signal. The upshot of it was that uh oh and he asked why we went off the air after about 3 months, because this was to make long distance telephone calls for free and I said this was because we regarded it as an engineering problem and we made the longest long distance call and so that was it. So the deal was, as I explained in my email to Bill Bullen, that we wouldn’t try to sell this and we were told, I was told that crime syndicates would pay a great deal for this, we wouldn’t do any more of it and that we would turn our equipment over to AT&T, and so they got a complete vacuum tube isolator kit for making long distance phone calls. But I was grateful for AJ Dodge and I must say, AT&T that they decided not to wreck my life. And so I told Bill Bullen that he had a great opportunity here, to not wreck somebody’s life, course he thankfully did the right thing.
Aaron’s unique quality was that he was marvelously and vigorously different. There is a scarcity of that. Perhaps we can be all a little more different too.
Thank you very much.”


  1. Quebec is a Canadian province. Therefore it is only one country.

    Comment by Hub — February 6, 2013 @ 11:19 am

  2. I doubt that Tufte invented the first blue box. Interesting story nevertheless.

    Comment by Jean-Marc Liotier — February 7, 2013 @ 3:16 am

  3. Great story. “crime significance” should probably be “crime syndicates”.

    Comment by Don Marti — February 7, 2013 @ 2:28 pm

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