Disconnected

They're called "phreakers," and they can do with a phone what hackers can do with computers. Few were more skilled—or more feared—than Matt Weigman, a blind teenager from East Boston. Using his heightened senses, he made himself untouchable. What he lacked, the FBI says, was the good sense to know when to hang up.
disconnected

illustration by Joe Morse

At about 1 a.m. on June 12, 2006, a 60-year-old truck driver named Jim Proulx walked out of his Alvarado, Texas, trailer home and into the sights of assault rifles. The guns were held by SWAT team officers responding to a dire 9-1-1 call from Proulx’s phone number. A caller who’d identified himself as Proulx said he was on hallucinogens, that he had an AK-47 and had just killed his wife. He said he was holding his daughter hostage, and would kill her, too, if he wasn’t given $50,000 and transport to Mexico. He also said that he was looking to kill some police officers.

It wasn’t the sort of situation the people of Alvarado—with a population of 4,000 and zero murders in the previous six years—were used to handling. If the cops were high-strung, it was understandable. They had no way of knowing that Proulx hadn’t made the call.

Proulx had no way of knowing what was happening, either, no way of realizing that as he walked out the door there were several different ways he could die. Maybe Proulx, only a few months removed from open-heart surgery, would find the commotion too much for his weakened heart. Perhaps the police would mistake an unfortunately timed reflection off his watch for the glint of a gun barrel. Considering all the threatening calls he’d been receiving over the past few weeks, it was a wonder Proulx hadn’t armed himself before heading outside.

But Proulx had no weapon, and when the cops got inside his trailer, there was no dead wife, no hostage daughter, nothing. The 9-1-1 call had come from the Seattle area, placed by a man who’d used the Internet phone service Skype and a computer program to make it look as if the call was coming from Proulx’s phone. And those menacing calls that had been ringing in for weeks, goading Proulx to a showdown: At least one of them had come from East Boston, from the bedroom of a 16-year-old blind kid named Matt Weigman.

It had started as a game, an absurd bit of one-upmanship orchestrated within an underground culture composed of tech geeks from across the country who congregated on telephone chat lines. Yet by the time the mischief reached its dark crescendo and Jim Proulx was set up for a shootout on his front steps, the whole thing had spiraled into something far more sinister. Nobody knew this better than Weigman, who’s scheduled to stand trial this month on federal charges that could earn him more than 20 years in prison. (Weigman has pleaded not guilty to the charges against him; neither he nor his lawyer would comment for this story.) Today, as he sits in a jail cell in Texas, Weigman is just another inmate, another head to count before lights-out. But in the world he made with his phone, the boy who called himself Li’l Hacker was a king.

 

It was the party line that gave birth to the game, and the party line was everything to Matt Weigman. A decidedly low-tech form of social networking, party lines are essentially toll-free chat rooms, open to anybody with a dial tone. Before World War II, when many homes in a community shared a single phone line, more than a dozen callers could join the conversation on the so-called party line. These days, callers dial in and then shuffle through “rooms” of live conversations.

The party lines that Weigman frequented were populated not by the purring coeds of late-night TV ads, but rather by lonesome souls searching to fill some social void. Like a junior high cafeteria, the party-line scene was replete with social hierarchies and unnecessary conflicts. It was a place for techie teens, for overwrought boys looking for sex and settling for drama.

To Weigman, it was a perfect social outlet. He was born blind, his optic nerve atrophied and damaged. During his early childhood, he was paired with an advocate who taught him how to crawl and later how to read Braille. There was briefly hope that his eyes might flicker to life: When he was four, Weigman’s mother turned on the lights of the Christmas tree, and Matt told her he could see them. His mother, knowing her son had already developed an uncanny sense of hearing, thought he’d merely heard the click of the switch and thus made the connection. No, Matt said. He saw the lights. But while Weigman would achieve some ability to discern light, the world never came into view for him. He grew up self-conscious about his impairment, aware of his limitations and embarrassed by his eyes; he knew how their tendency to roll rapidly and involuntarily (likely due to nystagmus, a condition common in those with optic nerve damage) freaked people out. He didn’t go out much.

When he was 11, Weigman discovered the party lines. Within a couple of years, friends say, he was spending days at a time dialed into them. Along with offering entertainment and a sense of community, the hobby appealed to his interest in the technological without requiring facility with a computer—something he had limited use for, given his lack of sight—and that rewarded his extraordinary sense of hearing and the supercharged auditory memory he’d also developed. It wasn’t just the talking on the phone but also discovering how the phone system itself worked that excited him. Among the party-line regulars, he found a subculture of tinkerers, enthusiasts known as phreakers, who probe and scan telephone networks, developing hidden tricks and looking for vulnerabilities to exploit. Among the phreakers, Weigman was soon considered one of the best.

 

Until the 1950s, the bulk of the U.S. phone system operated manually. Calls were placed via live operators connecting the right wires to the right jacks, forming one long connection by hand. Over time, with the advent of electronic switches, networks were automated, with calls relayed through a system of giant call centers and then on to the intended recipient. A price of the efficiency of these vast networks was the loss of human gatekeepers. There were loopholes and glitches in the new system, and no one to guard them.

The phreaker scene first sprang up in the early 1960s, in the hotbeds of technological innovation—places like Cambridge and the Pacific Northwest. “The personal computer didn’t exist then,” says Phil Lapsley, who is at work on a book on the history of phreaking. “And the closest thing you had to a computer or a network was the telephone system.”

Tech luminaries Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, cofounders of Apple, were part of the early subculture. The pair jury-rigged a device that allowed them to make free long-distance calls. In a move later cemented in phreaking lore, Wozniak once employed it to place a call to the Vatican, during which he impersonated Henry Kissinger and was nearly connected with the pontiff himself.

“We wanted to learn about the network,” says Bill Acker, a top phreaker of the time. “It was this big toy box.” Phreaking in its purest form was an impish pastime with discovery as the goal. “Phone phreaking is a relatively benign activity done by people looking to find out new things, people who want to play games and learn along the way,” says Chris Bernay (a phreaking alias), a comrade of Acker’s.

Both Bernay and Acker, as it happens, are also blind. Indeed, the scene in the 1970s was full of blind phreakers. Among the most famous was Joybubbles, the legal name of a man formerly known as Joe Engressia. A bona fide genius, he was seven years old when he discovered that whistling into the phone at specific frequencies could trigger certain telephonic switches. Before long he was whistling for free calls. His exploits, though, were short-lived: In 1971 he was caught by the FBI and charged with malicious mischief, and from then on the 22-year-old resolved to keep the tinkering aboveboard.

Phreakers who are so inclined can cause a surprising amount of harm with a phone. Consider the three blind brothers in Israel who managed to exploit an inactive feature within the Israeli army’s telephone system to build their own phone company. Charging their customers and then using the hacked phone system to place calls for free, the brothers and their associates pocketed $2 million before they were nabbed in 1999. Just last August, another phreaker wormed into the telephone network of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (which is part of the Department of Homeland Security) by breaking into the voice-mail system. Once in, the hacker made $12,000 worth of calls to the Middle East and Asia.

Even for today’s phreakers, there’s still a thrill in merely getting access to something not intended for them. Something like the machines near the giant fish tanks at Kelly’s Roast Beef restaurants, which monitor water temperature and noise levels and offer a menu of reports and 15-second live audio feeds through a phone system accessible to Kelly’s employees—and to the curious phreakers who dial in as well. Phreakers make such finds by scanning—dialing numbers sequentially until they stumble onto something interesting. It takes time and patience to do this. They have to work as a team. But they can uncover oddities like inactive intercept recordings from the phone companies (“We’re sorry, but due to a mudslide in the area, your call cannot be completed”). The rewards can be as simple as that. A new find, some bit of uncharted territory.

Weigman knew this history well and revered the pioneers of the practice; he even spoke to Joybubbles on occasion until his death in 2007. He picked things up quickly, and as he got into phreaking, his forays were harmless enough. He could remember long sequences of tones—10, 15, 20 at a time—after just one listen, which could be helpful if you overhear the tones for someone’s voice-mail password, and then maybe want to log in to that person’s account. Probing their systems for soft spots, he learned the phone companies inside and out, and held a mental Rolodex of hundreds of numbers and names. He started memorizing the industry jargon. Then he began putting it to use by calling internal phone company numbers and using the right buzzwords to get the operators to hook up free service for him. By dropping the correct lingo on the operators, he could also manipulate other people’s service. Among the phreakers, this is referred to as social engineering. The FBI calls it pretexting. Everyone else knows it as conning.