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TUCoPS :: Phreaking Cellular - Misc. :: celcodez.txt

Cellular Phreaks & Code Dudes

                         CELLULAR PHREAKS & CODE DUDES
                                By John Markoff
                       Wired, 1.1 (Premiere Issue), 1993
                    Hacking Chips On Cellular Phones Is The
                    Latest Thing In The Digital Underground
     In Silicon Valley, each new technology gives rise to a new generation
     of hackers.  Consider  the  cellular telephone.  The land-based tele-
     phone system was originally the playground for a small group of hardy
     adventurers  who  believed mastery of telephone technology was an end
     in  itself.   Free  phone  calls  weren't the goal of the first phone
     phreaks.  The challenge was to understand the system.
     The philosophy of these phone hackers:  Push  the  machines as far as
     they would go.
     Little  has  changed.  Meet V.T. and N.M., the  nation's  most clever
     cellular  phone  phreaks.   (Names here are obscured because, as with
     many  hackers, V.T.  and N.M.'s deeds inhabit a legal gray area.) The
     original  phone  phreaks thought of themselves as "telecommunications
     hobbyists"  who explored the nooks and crannies of the nation's tele-
     phone network -- not for profit, but for intellectual challenge.  For
     a  new  generation,  the cellular revolution offers rich new veins to
     V.T. is a young scientist at  a  prestigious  government  laboratory.
     He has long hair and his choice in garb frequently tends toward Pata-
     gonia.  He  is  generally  regarded  as  a  computer  hacker with few
     equals.  N.M. is a self-taught  hacker who lives and works in Silicon
     Valley.   He has mastered the intricacies of Unix and DOS.  Unusually
     persistent, he spent almost an entire year picking apart his cellular
     phone just to see how it works.
     What V.T. and N.M. discovered  last  year is that cellular phones are
     really  just computers -- networked terminals -- linked together by a
     gigantic cellular network.  They also realized  that  just like other
     computer, cellular phones are programmable.
     Programmable!  In  a  hacker's mind that  means there is no reason to
     limit  a  cellular phone to the paltry choice of functions offered by
     its manufacturer.  That  means  that  cellular  phones can be hacked!
     They  can  be dissected and disassembled and put back together in re-
     markable new ways.  Optimized!
     Cellular  phones  aren't  the first consumer appliances to be cracked
     open and augmented in ways  their  designers  never conceived.  Cars,
     for  example,  are no longer the sole province of mechanics.  This is
     the  information  age:  Modern automobiles have dozens of tiny micro-
     processors.  Each  one  is  a computer; each one can be reprogrammed.
     Hot  rodding cars today doesn't mean throwing in a new carburetor; it
     means  rewriting  the  software  governing  the  car's fuel injection
     This is the reality science fiction writers  William Gibson and Bruce
     Sterling had in mind when they created cyberpunk:  Any technology, no
     matter  how  advanced,  almost  immediately falls to the level of the
     street.  Here  in  Silicon  Valley, there are hundreds of others like
     V.T. and N.M. who squeeze into  the crannies of  any new  technology,
     bending it to new and more exotic uses.
     On  a  recent  afternoon,  V.T. sits  at a  conference  room in a San
     Francisco highrise.  In his hand  is  an  OKI 900 cellular phone.  It
     nestles  comfortably in his palm as his fingers dance across the key-
     board.  Suddenly, the tiny back-lit screen  flashes a message:  "Good
     Good Timing?  This is a whimsical message  left hidden in the phone's
     software by the  manufacturer's  programmers.  V.T. has  entered  the
     phone's software sub-basement -- a command area normally reserved for
     technicians.   This is where the phone can be reprogrammed; a control
     point from which  the  phone  can  be directed  to do  new and cooler
     things.  It is hidden by a simple undocumented password.
     How did V.T. get the password, or  even  know  one  was required?  It
     didn't take sophisticated  social  engineering -- the  phone phreak's
     term  for  gaining  secret  engineering  data  by  fooling  unwitting
     employees into thinking they are talking to an official phone company
     technician.  Rather, all he did was order the technical manual, which
     told him he needed special  codes  to  enter  the  software basement.
     V.T.  then  called  the  cellular  phone  maker's  technical  support
     hotline.  "They said  'sorry about that,' and asked for a fax number.
     A couple of minutes later we had the codes," he recalls  with a faint
     V.T.'s fingers continue darting across the keys -- he is issuing com-
     mands built into the phone  by  the original programmers.  These com-
     mands  are  not  found  in  the  programmer's user manual.  Suddenly,
     voices  emerge  from  the  phone's ear piece.  The first is that of a
     salesman getting his messages from a voice mail system.  V.T.  shifts
     frequencies.  Another  voice.  A woman giving  her boss directions to
     his next appointment.
     What's going on here?  V.T. and N.M. have discovered that every cell-
     ular  phone  possesses a secret  mode  that  turns it into a powerful
     cellular scanner.
     That's  just  the  beginning.  Using a special program called a "dis-
     assembler," V.T. has  read-out  the OKI'S  software,  revealing  more
     than 90 secret commands for controlling the phone.
     That's  how the two hackers found the undocumented features that turn
     the phone into a scanner.  Best of all, the manufacturer has included
     a simple interface that makes it possible to control the phone with a
     standard personal computer.
     A personal computer! The most programmable of a hacker's tools!  That
     means that what appears to be a simple telephone can be easily trans-
     formed into a powerful machine that can do things its designers never
     dreamed of!
     V.T. and N.M.  have  also discovered that the OKI'S 64-Kbyte ROM -- a
     standard off-the-shelf chip that stores  the  phone's software -- has
     more  than  20  Kbytes  of free space.  Plenty of room to add special
     features, just like hot rodding the  electronics of a late-model car.
     Not only do the hackers use  the  software that is already there, but
     they can add some of their own as well. And for a good programmer, 20
     Kbytes is a lot of room to work with.
     It is worth noting that V.T. and N.M. are  not  interested in getting
     free phone calls.  There are dozens of other ways to accomplish that,
     as an anonymous  young pirate recently demonstrated  by  stealing the
     electronic  serial number from a San Diego roadside emergency box and
     then  racking up thousands of phone calls before the scam was discov-
     ered.  (Such  a  serial number allowed the  clever hacker to create a
     phone that the phone network thought  was  somewhere on a pole by the
     side of the freeway.)
     It's also possible to wander to  street corners in any borough in New
     York  City  and  find a code dude -- street slang for someone who il-
     legally  pirates  telephone  codes -- who will give you 15 minutes of
     phone  time  to  any corner of the world for $10.  These "dudes" find
     illegally  gathered  charge  card numbers and then resell them on the
     street  until  telephone security catches on.  The tip-off:  often an
     unusually large number of calls to  Ecuador  or France emanating from
     one particular street corner.
     Then again, it's possible for you  to join the code hackers who write
     telephone  software  that automatically finds codes to be stolen.  Or
     you can buy a hot ROM -- one that contains magic security information
     identifying you as a paying customer.  Either way, your actions would
     be untraceable by the phone company's interwoven security databases.
     But free phone calls are not what V.T. and N.M. are  about.  "It's so
     boring," says  V.T.  "If  you're  going  to do something illegal, you
     might as well do something interesting."
     So what's tempting?  N.M. has hooked his portable PC and his cellular
     phone  together.   He watches the laptop's screen, which is drawing a
     map of each cellular phone call currently being placed in our cell --
     a  term  for  the  area covered by one broadcast unit in the cellular
     phone  network.   The network can easily query each cellular phone as
     to  its  current  location.   When phones travel from one cell to the
     next -- as they tend to do in a car -- information  is  passed  on in
     the form of hidden code married to the phone transmission. Since N.M.
     knows  where  each local cell is, he can display the approximate geo-
     graphic locations of each phone that is currently active.
     But for that tracking scheme to work, the user  must be on the phone.
     It  would  take  only a few days of hacking to extend the software on
     N.M.'s PC to do an even more intriguing monitoring task:  Why not pi-
     rate  the  data from the cellular network's paging channel (a special
     frequency  that  cellular  networks use to communicate administrative
     information  to  cellular  phones)  and  use  it to follow car phones
     through the networks?  Each time there is a hand-off from one cell to
     the next, that fact  could  be recorded  on  the  screen of the PC --
     making  it  possible to track users regardless of whether or not they
     are on the phone.
     Of course this is highly illegal, but N.M. muses that  the capability
     is  something  that  might  be  extremely valuable to law enforcement
     agencies -- and all at a cost far below  the  exotic systems they now
     Hooking a cellular phone to a personal computer offers other surveil-
     lance possibilities as well.  V.T.  and N.M.  have considered writing
     software to monitor particular phone numbers.  They could easily des-
     ign a program  that  turns the OKI 900 on  when  calls are originated
     from  a  specific  number,  or  when  specific numbers are called.  A
     simple voice-activated  recorder  could  then tape the call.  And, of
     course,  a  reprogrammed  phone could automatically decode touch-tone
     passwords -- making it easy to steal  credit  card numbers and voice-
     mail codes.
     Then there's the  vampire phone.  Why not, suggests V.T., take advan-
     tage of a cellular phone's radio frequency leakage -- inevitable low-
     power  radio  emissions -- to build a phone that, with the press of a
     few  buttons,  could scan the RF spectrum for the victim's electronic
     serial  number.  You'd have to be pretty close to the target phone to
     pick  up the RF, but once you have the identity codes, a reprogrammed
     phone becomes digitally indistinguishable from the original.  This is
     they type of  phone  fraud  that  keeps  federal  investigators up at
     Or how about the ultimate hacker's spoof?  V.T. has carefully studied
     phone  company  billing procedures and found many examples of inaccu-
     rate bills.  Why  not monitor somebody's calls  and  then anonymously
     send the person a corrected version of their bill:  "According to our
     Of course, such software hacks are probably highly illegal, and auth-
     orities seem to be catching on.  The Electronic Communications Priva-
     cy  Act  of  1986  makes  it a federal crime to eavesdrop on cellular
     phone calls.  More recently, Congress passed  another  law forbidding
     the  manufacture  of  cellular scanners.  While they may not be manu-
     facturers, both N.M. and V.T. realize that  their beautifully crafted
     phones are probably illegal.
     For now, their goals are more modest.  V.T., for  example, would like
     to  be able to have several phones with the same phone number.  Not a
     problem,  as  it turns out.  Although federal law requires that elec-
     tronic  serial  numbers be hidden in specially protected memory loca-
     tions, V.T. and N.M. have figured out  how  to  pry the OKI'S ESN out
     and  and  write  software  so that they can replace it with their own
     V.T. and N.M.'s explorations into the soul  of  the OKI 900 have left
     them with a great deal of admiration for OKI'S programmers.  "I don't
     know  what they were thinking, but they had a good time," V.T.  said,
     "This phone was clearly built by hackers."
     The one thing V.T. and N.M. haven't  decided  is  whether or not they
     should  tell  OKI  about the bugs -- and the possibilities -- they've
     found in the phone's software.
                              W h y   W i r e d:
       Because the Digital Revolution is whipping through our lives like a
        Bengali typhoon -- while the mainstream media is still groping for
          the snooze button.  And because the computer "press" is too busy
        churning out the latest PCINFOCOMPUTINGCORPORATEWORLD iteration of
          its ad sales formula cum parts catalog to discuss the meaning or
     context of SOCIAL CHANGES SO PROFOUND their only parallel is probably
                                                    the discovery of fire.
       There are a lot of magazines about technology.  Wired is not one of
     them.  Wired is about the most powerful people on the planet today --
       THE DIGITAL GENERATION.  These are the people who only only foresaw
          how the merger of computers, telecommunications and the media is
       transforming life at the cusp of the new millenium, they are making
                                                                it happen.
     Our second:  We know a lot about digital technology, and we are bored
      with it.  Tell us something we've never heard before, in a way we've
         never seen before.  If it challenges our assumptions, so much the
      So why now?  Why Wired?  Because in the age of information overload,
                               THE ULTIMATE LUXURY IS MEANING AND CONTEXT.
             Or put another way, if you're looking for the soul of our new
          society in wild metamorphosis, our advice is simple.  Get Wired.
                                                                      - LR
              You can reach me at 415/904 0664, or LR@WIRED.COM.

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