By David Price
June 30, 2008
In 1971, Ron Rosenbaum's Esquire article, "Secrets of the Little Blue
Box", introduced America to phone phreaks, a subterranean network of
geek explorers who probed the global phone system as the world's largest
pre-Internet interconnected machine. A star of Rosenbaum's piece was
Joe Engressia, a blind telephonic hacking pioneer with perfect pitch and
a high IQ, who seized control over phone systems by whistling dual-tone,
multi-frequency pitches into telephone receivers.
Before the introduction of modern phone-switching technology, audible
tones were used to connect phones with distant destinations. As a young
child, Engressia was obsessed with the telephone, finding comfort within
the steady blare of the dial tone. At the age of 5, he discovered he
could dial the phone by clicking the receiver's hang-up switch, and at 7
he accidentally discovered that whistling specific frequencies could
activate phone switches. From there, experimentation, brilliance,
networking and perseverance led Engressia to probe weaknesses in the
network that allowed him to make free phone calls. His mastery over this
global machine was liberating, if not obsessive.
As Rosenbaum was completing his 1971 article, Engressia was arrested for
theft of telephone services. At the time it appeared that the phone
company had only recently become aware of his activities - though a few
years earlier he had been expelled from the University of South Florida
for selling fellow students long-distance calls for a dollar each.
Rosenbaum's 1971 piece put the spotlight on Engressia, as newspapers,
magazines and television programs ran features on him and his
activities. Engressia became a cultural icon, or proto-hacker
stereotype, as characters with his abilities were written into cyberpunk
novels and Hollywood screenplays with characters like Sneakers. Erwin
Engressia's IQ loomed somewhere above 170, but as an adult he wished to
live as a 5 years old, founding his own church, the Church of Eternal
Childhood. His wish to remain an eternal child appears to be linked to
the repeated sexual abuse he reported suffering from a nun at the school
for the blind that he attended as a child, as well as the academic
pressures that led him to miss out on playtime as a child. In 1991,
Engressia legally changed his name to Joybubbles. Until his death this
last year, Joybubbles ran a phone "story line" in Minneapolis, where
callers would call and hear him tell a different children's story each
week - adopting a cadence and personal style reminiscent of his hero,
When Joybubbles died last year, I used the Freedom of Information Act to
request his FBI file, mostly just to see what the FBI had made of this
explorer who had loved and wandered through this pre-Internet global
network. I figured there might be something in his file relating to his
1971 arrest, but I hadn't expected to find an FBI and phone company
investigation of him from two years before this arrest.
An August 28, 1969, FBI General Investigative Division report describes
an investigation by Kansas City telephone company of three subjects in
Kansas City, Miami and Chicago, who had "discovered a means to intercept
and monitor WRS and Autovon" phone lines. Autovon (Automatic Voice
Network) was a Defense Communication Agency telephone network used for
nonsecure military phone communication. The FBI's report mistakenly
claimed that Autovon was a "top secret telephone system utilized only by
the White House", when in fact Autovon was really a nonclassified
military telephone system, designed to link military installations even
under the unpleasant conditions of nuclear annihilation.
The FBI believed that Engressia was "the 'brains' in this matter and was
an electronics genius with an I.Q. of one hundred ninety." Even though
the FBI's investigation had "not revealed any national security aspect
to their activities" and phone company officials stated that this
group's use of free phone calls had been "strictly for their own
amusement and [the] harassment of [the] phone company", the FBI's
investigation reports were filed under the heading: "Security matter -
Espionage: interception of communications."
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