The term phreaking is a slang used to describe hacking into a secure telecommunication network. Phreaking started off as a hobby for the curious minds exploring and exploiting the weaknesses of the phone network. They would mimic the dial tones used by the analogue phones to trigger automatic switches. The curiosity of how the network worked motivated the initial phreakers rather than to defraud telecom companies.
But now phreaking is synonymous with hacking.
Back in the day, phreaks used to make long-distance phone calls for free using nifty (and illegal) techniques. They would use a ‘black box’ to make free calls to home and use a ‘red box’ to make free calls from a payphone. There was also an infamous ‘blue box’ that provided control over the entire telephone system. If you are curious about how these boxes worked, user guides are still available somewhere in the deep web. But most of these guides are out of date and won’t work on the modern digital networks.
Almost all of these acts are illegal and they sent many phreaks to jail. Although exploring the network by itself was not illegal back then, using it to make free calls was against the law. And some phreaks used their skills to wiretap telephones, and some even stole telephone company’s equipment.
Why did people do it?
Phreaking started out of the curiosity that drives a young mind. The need to understand how the telephone network fuelled the initial phreakers and the tradition still continues. Although the telecom landscape has transformed, the curiosity of phreaks has no end. In fact, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were known to dabble in phreaking back in the day.
Today when most of the networks are switching to Voice over LTE (Long Term Evolution), phreakers are back in action. Researchers have found several weaknesses in the VoLTE networks in a few countries that could be used for phreaking.