Monday, November 4th, 2013
This article was originally written for and published at Philly2600 on November 4th, 2013. It has been posted here for safe keeping.
The tech scene in Philadelphia is booming. We have local startups like Duck Duck Go and TicketLeap, and we have co-working spaces like Indy Hall and Philly Game Forge. We have hackathons like Apps for Philly Transit and Start-up Weekend Health, and we have hackerspaces like Hive 76 and Devnuts. We have user groups like PLUG and PSSUG, and we have conferences like Fosscon and PumpCon. We have events like Philly Tech Week and TEDxPhilly, and we have security meet-ups like PhillySec and, yeah, Philly 2600. The hacker spirit is alive and well in the city of brotherly love, but where did all of this pro-hacker sentiment come from? What came before to help shape our current tech-centric landscape?
It’s surprisingly difficult to approach the topic from the present day. I haven’t been there since the beginning, and the breadcrumbs left over from the era are few and far between. We are left with hints though, but usually from more analog sources. The first issue of 2600 that includes meeting times is volume 10, issue 2, from 1993. Philly 2600 is listed here with numerous others (making the meeting at least 20 years old), but how long did the meeting exist before this? We also know that Bernie S., longtime 2600 affiliate, was the founder of the Philadelphia 2600 chapter. Other than that, there is little to find on paper.
First listing of the Philadelphia 2600 meeting in 2600 Volume 10, Issue 2 (1993).
But what else can we dig up? We do have some other little tidbits of information that apply themselves to the history of Philly 2600. The film Freedom Downtime (2001) has some footage taking place at Stairway #7 of 30th Street Station, the original meeting location. There are also mentions of the meeting in the book Hacker Diaries: Confessions of Teenage Hackers (2002), where one story places a student at the 30th Street meeting in the late 1990′s. More recent references, such as the current 2600 magazine meeting listings have the meeting location moved to the southeast corner of the food court – the location used previous to the current location some 50 feet away.
Mention of Philadelphia 2600 meeting from The Hacker Diaries: Confessions of Teenage Hackers (2002).
But what about the people who attended? It’s hard to keep track of this aspect, and as time goes on people come and go. Some come for one meeting and are never seen again, but some stick around a while. Eventually, there are no remains of the previous group – the meeting goes through generations. We can get a little information from simple web searches. Old Usenet listings can be a great source for material, here’s a Philadelphia 2600 meeting announcement from 1995 by The Professor. Even more interesting, here’s a Phrack article by Emmanuel Goldstein (publisher of 2600) talking about how he and three others brought Mark Abene (Phiber Optik) to the Philly 2600 meeting before having to drop him off at federal prison in Schuylkill.
Using Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, we can get an interesting perspective on the members from ten years ago by visiting an archived version of the old website (also at this domain). This is actually something we can explore. It appears that as of mid 2002 to regulars were JQS, Kepi Blanc, Damiend LaTao, Dj`Freak, The Good Revrend Nookie Freak, and GodEmperor Daeymion. Before this, regulars included Satanklawz (former site admin at the time) and Starkweather before the site was passed on to Kepi Blanc. The archived website offers an incredible amount of information such as a WiFi map of the city, several papers, and even (incredibly tiny thumbnails of) meeting photos. It’s clunky and full of imperfections but this website offers a time-capsule-like look into Philly 2600′s past.
The old Philly 2600 logo
But what about other hacker origins in the area?
We know of Pumpcon, one of the USA’s first hacker conferences started in 1993 (almost as old as DEFCON). Pumpcon has been running for over 20 years with an invite-only status. It is often overshadowed and left in the dust by the larger conferences in the country, despite its stature as one of the first of its kind. Pumpcon has not been exclusively held in Philadelphia since its inception. The conference has previously been held in Greenburgh, New York and Pittsburgh. Pumpcon has no central repository of information (why would it?) but a lot of history can be found scouring the web through old ezine articles like this one about Pumpcon being busted and notices like this one announcing Pumpcon VI. I’m currently compiling as many of these resources as I can, but there is an immense amount of data to sift through. Below I have some hard copy from my collection: A review of Pumpcon II from the publication Gray Areas and the incredibly recent Pumpcon 2012 announcement.
Pumpcon II Review (Page 1/2) from Gray Areas Vol. 3 No. 1 (1994)
Pumpcon 2012 Announcement
Other groups are harder to find. Numerous groups started up, burned brightly, and were then extinguished. Who knows where those people are now or the extent of what they accomplished. There are of course a few leftovers. One of my own pet projects is the development of an archive of older hacker magazines. A previously popular publication in particular, Blacklisted! 411, sheds a little light on some long-lost Philly hackers. A few issues make reference to Blacklisted! meetings taking place at Suburban Station in Philadelphia and another at the Granite Run Mall run by thegreek[at]hygnet[dot]com (long defunct) in neighboring Delaware County (and surprisingly about five minutes from my house). The earliest occurrence of these meetings I can find of this is in volume 3, issue 3 from August 1996 but either may have started earlier.
Philadelphia/Media Blacklisted meeting listings from Blacklisted! 411 Vol. 3, Issue 3 (1996)
There are a few other loose ends as well. The recent book Exploding The Phone (2013) by Phil Lapsley catalogs the beginnings of the phreak culture, and makes reference to several fone phreaks in PA, some more notable than others, including Philadelphia native David Condon and some unidentified friends of John Draper (Cap’n Crunch) around the time he was busted by Pennsylvania Bell. We additionally know that some of the main scenes in the previously mentioned Freedom Downtime were filmed in Philadelphia. We also know that there are were hundreds of hacker bulletin board systems in the area from the 1980′s through the 1990′s.
Bell Pennsylvania joke advert, from Exploding the Phone (2013)
Let’s change gears now. Our main problem in moving forward is what we do not know. Stories and events have been lost as time goes one, and the hopes of finding them becomes dimmer with each passing year.
If you had some involvement with the Philadelphia hacking scene in the years past, tell someone. Talk to me. Let me interview you. Get your story out there. Share your experiences – I’m all ears.
Those of you out there hosting meetings and starting projects, keep a record of what you’re doing. This is my one request.
We’ve already lost a lot of history. Let’s try saving some.
Thursday, January 17th, 2013
Every once in a while, I’ll see this conversation:
<CMack> whoa whoa WHOA
<CMack> there was a project to find Jenny by dialing 867-5309 at every area code in the US
<CMack> That’s not the wild bit
<CMack> The crazy part is just a bit down
<CMack> Code Findings(scanned by Famicoman)
<CMack> —- ——————————
<!Moonlit> Famicoman_ is a bit of a dark horse like that
<CMack> Did I just win at Six Degrees of Thinstack?
Believe it or not, this basic exchange has happened more than once. I usually end up coming in a day or so after to dispense a few key details. I figured I should take a shot going through how I became involved with this document, so feel free to take off if you’ve heard this one. For everyone still left, read on.
The quote above already covers the main idea of what went on. For a few years here and there, there were some small projects to scan the number 867-5309 with all the prefixes and see who picks up. That’s a lot of numbers. A little under 1000.
The symbolism of the scan is in the number. In 1982, power pop band Tommy Tutone released the song “867-5309/Jenny” which describes a guy finding a girl’s phone number on (presumably) a bathroom wall. The band claims the number was made up, but the song became a one hit wonder. People everywhere started calling the number, asking for “Jenny,” causing thousands if not millions of unwanted calls.
For some perspective, all this was about ten years before I was born.
The band got into a big dispute over using a real (callable) number, and over the years most of these numbers ended up becoming disconnected outright. Even right now, thirty years later, the song still gets airtime. And, or course, someone out there gets tempted to call it.
As I touched on earlier, over the years there were a few scans done of all these numbers just to see what was still out there. Just for fun. A lot of the big names of the scanning scene contributed to these, and they were pretty cool little files to browse through. There wasn’t any schedule to these, they were just sort of done on a whim. In 2006, I saw a forum posting over at BinRev for “Jenny07″ and decided to sign up.
In 2006, I was 15 years old and sort of branching out on the internet a bit more than I had before. I got into the historical side of computer hacking and phone phreaking, and set myself up modestly on an IRC channel or two. I didn’t know much but I knew I wanted to get my feet wet. Participating in a scan was a nifty idea to me. I’d put myself back in time 25 years and do things the old fashioned way. I’ve always followed the ideology of looking back at what’s been done to know how one should advance.
So I signed up for the 600 block, which contained my own area code. Now at this time, I didn’t have a cell phone. I also sure as hell was not going to dial 100 numbers and tie up the family land-line What was a kid to do? You might remember an important promotion for a relatively young piece of VOIP software back in 2006. Skype was trying to get people to register, and were offering free calling credits if you signed up. So here I was with a handful of Skype credits and a few hours of free time on an evening after school. One by one I called the numbers and recorded what I heard on the line (if anything).
It took longer than you’d think. So much so that I didn’t want to do another block even though I had been planning to. It wasn’t difficult, just exhaustive. Still, it was a lot of fun seeing what would happen when connecting to each new number. I submitted my findings back to the forum post along with a few others and eventually my results were rolled into the document which was released to a few sites. There were plans to do this scan again every year or so, but it never seemed to materialize after this one.
So where are we now? Six years later, it’s a nice little reminder of one of my first collaborations in the internet world. It’s a pretty nice feeling seeing my name up there with some “famous” names and knowing I was part of something that was swapped all around the web, ending up on dozens of servers.
It’s a funny conversation starter and I honestly forget about it until someone brings it up and asks what they’re looking at. It’s one of those “Oh yeah, THAT” conversations usually followed by a “Let me explain.” While the file still floats around out there, I decided to toss it up over at the Internet Archive so it can be found always, by anyone. A nice little insurance policy.
Take a look, and have a laugh. I know I did.
Tuesday, December 2nd, 2008
Ever since January of this year, I have been waiting for the second book in the Wizzywig series to be ready for distribution. The first volume, subtitled “Phreak” follows a young kid named Kevin Phenicle who goes by the handle Boingthump. Let me say, this isn’t some drab piece of writing you would find in the discount bin at your local book outlet. These are graphic novels, containing anything but a boring story about some kiddie hacker acting out a stereotype. This first book I read about Boingthump was a definite, and somewhat unexpected, treat. The bulk of the story was composed of little snippets of this character’s doings. From his first experience with blueboxing to social engineering pizza, the story is rife with creative scenarios that paint a vivid picture of an anykid in the golden age of phreaking. Suffice it to say I was impressed by just how much fact went into the story, and was curious to see where it would go… or where it would take me.
Fast forward to November. I stumbled across Ed Piskor’s website after forgetting about it for a little while. I found out that the second book had been completed and was ready for purchase, so I quickly snagged myself a copy, which arrived in the mail quickly after my purchase. Upon reading the book, I was happy to see much of the same structure as was present in the first. The story bounced back and forth between present day (Kevin has been incarcerated) and his younger days when he started experimenting with computers, and became immersed in a new, exciting, and scary world found through his phone lines.
The story found in these books is not your cookie cutter hacker epic. Take your Hackers, your Die Hard 4, your Swordfish, and throw them out the window. Ed takes careful attention to detail, nothing here is a stretch of the imagination and you can see he has done his homework in the creation of these novels. Reading along, you’ll be able to see all he has done simply by what is alluded to. No Hollywood garbage trying to make hacking seem glamorous or news stories spewing out tales that this underground world is full of all kinds of dangerous people who can make a computer explode. Ed gives the honest, gritty perspective the genre has hardly ever been represented by.
Summing things up, I don’t know anyone who is showing the world of phreak/hack culture in this fashion. Ed has truely honed his craft, and the fact that he himself is only an admirer of this culture, and not a participant only ampliphies his qualities. If you liked the first one, you probably already have the second, and are waiting patiently for the third and fourth. For those of you who haven’t jumped on the wagon yet, you can purchase both books directly from Ed at his website. There are also previews of both of the books, so you can read a few panels before deciding.
Also, I happen to be “in” the second installment as an angry fellow on page 10.