'Phreakers' Take a Swipe At Turnstiles and Nynex

By Jennifer Stinger

New York Times, August 8, 1994

Rich the Rebel is a man obsessed with ways to steal phone calls.

Dr. Who will not rest easy until he has decoded the magnetic strip on the New York State driver's license. And for others in the community of Dr. No, Malice and Walking Owl, cracking the code on the Transit Authority's new Metrocard may be only a few swipes away.

They were some of the approximately 1,000 people who gathered yesterday in a Manhattan hotel for the Hackers on Planet Earth conference, where New Yorkers with a penchant for pushiness, nosiness and the obsession with being first were able to hone their skills at technical mischief, urban-style.

They exchanged tips on duping Nynex. They broke into a pay phone. And they looked for ways to hack or "freak" each other.

Hackers use their computers to break into other people's systems phone phreakers do the same thing with telephone switches. While the organizer of the conference, the hackers' trade journal 2600, said it did not condone nefarious activities, what hackers do is often illegal, and government agencies and companies generally loathe them because they cost them money and, occasionally, secrets.

On the conference agenda, sometime before the seminar on lock picking, was a group discussion on how to crack the code on the Metrocard, the new plastic card recently introduced in dozens of subway stations.

A New York City transit employee attending the conference, who insisted on anonymity, explained that some of the attendees were busy working on ways to emulate the code contained in the magnetic strip on the card, which releases a turnstile when swiped along a slot on its side.

The transit employee said that while he thought no one was yet close to cracking the magnetic code, he did know of a man who tape-recorded the sound "heard" by the turnstiles on an eight-track tape, and then sliced it and put it on a card the same size. While his new card did gain him entry into a station, he said, he was also arrested. So much for that trick.

No one from the Metropolitan Transporation Authority, parent agency of the Transit Authority, could be reached last night for comment.

Many of the convention guests however, were more interested in learning about new technology than about decoding for the sake of defrauding.

Dr. Who, who, like most hackers, uses a fake name to avoid tracking by the authorities, sprawled on the floor with his standard equipment: an EDS magnetic stripe reader purchased at an electronics shop, and a telephone test set. He ran New York driver's licenses through the reader, pondering the six-digit number that kept coming up.

"I want to see into the darkenss of the magnetic strip," he said gravely. "What are they putting in there that we don't know about?"

Rich the Rebel, who says he has always loved telephone sounds, has spent an inordinate amount of time hanging out in a Queens supermarket, whale there is a telephone that connects directly to a car service. He found a way to trip the system and made long-distance calls there. regularly.

"I want to tell someone at Nynex that there are loopholes in their system," he said. "But I just don't know who to go to."

His favorite method of phreaking involves a little black box that emulates the sound of a dropping quarter, which tricks the machine into Connecting calls he has not paid for. He really wants to clue Nynex in on this. Really.

Security at the conference, which was held at the Hotel Pennsylvania, was tight. Those attending had to wear badges bearing their photos and E-mail addresses at all times, and volunteers pounced on guests the minute they walked through the doors leading to the conference room, demanding identification.

Equally strict were the rules, which were posted throughout the room, where everyone was spread out, mostly on the floor discussing things that cannot really be explainel here, largely because the language used was only slightly less inscrutable than, say, Serbian street slang.

"Do not hack, phreak or mess with hotel property, Wiring or fire alarm," the organizers warned.

The majority of the conference folks, organizers said, were more content to tap into the night on computers, and chat with other visitors about computers.

"Almost no one here wants to be associated with people who do bad things," said Roman Kazan, 18, who was in charge of tth Internet functions. "We are really just techno-freaks."

Caption on Photograph (NYT.JPG, hopefully coming soon)
Doug Platt, center, displaying his system using head gear with an eye-piece monitor, at the Hackers on Planet Earth conference in Manhattan. About 1,000 people attended to learn about new electronics technology and, in some cases, tricks of the trade on sneaking into pay phones and the subway system.

RETURN Return to the HOPE page by clicking here.