Phreaking

Trashing the Phone Company with Suzy Thunder

What if I told you there was a goldmine of information—passwords, credit card numbers, internal corporate documents—just sitting there, in the open, waiting to be taken?

It’s right there, in the dumpster, behind the phone company. All you have to do is dive in.

In this clip from a 1982 episode of ABC’s 20/20, a young and hirsute Geraldo Rivera reveals the secrets of the phone phreaks and computer hackers—electronic delinquents taking “electronic joyrides” through North America’s telephone and computer networks. Where did they get the passwords they needed to start their joyrides? “Well, according to the kids themselves,” Rivera says, “the answer comes from right here: the trash bins located behind the phone company building. That’s right, the trash bins. It was here that they found some out-of-date manuals that contained the information they needed.”

Cut to Suzy Thunder. She might be one of the greatest 1980s hackers you’ve never heard of. Here, interviewed by Rivera, she describes what her kind had been sharing covertly for over a decade in a host of underground hacker zines and Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs): “They [Ma Bell] get an update, they throw away the old one, just toss it in the bin. So the phone phreaks would go through and clean out the bins. There was a lot of knowledge retrieved that way.”

Thunder would know. Along with Lewis DePayne and Kevin Mitnick, she had been phreaking AT&T for years. Mixing her skills in social engineering (otherwise known as “bullshitting”) and her willingness to get into dumpsters, Thunder acquired an impressive knowledge base of Ma Bell’s technology and its bureaucracy—both ripe for exploitation.

As computers became more ubiquitous in the 1980s, “dumpster diving” was metaphorically expanded into rooting through “memory dumps” and modem “cross-talk” and noise on phone lines, as an article in the second issue of 2600 magazine documents.

We like to think of information as clean and immaterial. Phone phreaks and hackers teach us that information is messy and hard to control. We can even throw it away. Our computers house digital scraps of information—passwords, banking numbers, personal files—that can be turned against us, even after we thought they were deleted. And now, the internet itself has become a vast “digital dumpster,” teeming with sensitive information made available after corporations get ruthlessly hacked.

Suzy Thunder went on to warn us of these problems. After her interview on 20/20, she testified to the United States Senate in 1983, alerting them to the dangers of hacker “garbology,” rooting through traditional and digital trash. Thunder’s testimony was part of her shift from underground hacker to professionalized security consultant, and her clients included the US military. From the dumpsters of LA to the US Congress in DC. That’s quite a joyride.

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