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Motherboard

SuchCalls Brings Encrypted Phreak Fun to Smartphone Calling

The return of the original hackers.

by DJ Pangburn
May 25 2014, 1:00pm

Here, there, everywhere a new encryption app. Now there's SuchCalls, a project helmed by hacker and privacy advocates Jered Morgan and Teli Tuketu that brings the underground art of phone phreaking to the masses in a (somewhat paradoxically) encrypted fashion. Not only are there easter eggs planted via various numeral combinations, but users can pay for calls in Dogecoin. SuchCalls also offers blocked caller ID unmasking, in-call recording, and phreaker "bridges"—conference lines for anonymous, encrypted conversation.

The app allows users to choose any softphone client (Cloud Softphone is recommended) or device they like. All of these features makes SuchCalls distinctly useful but also playfully anarchic, a fusion that is really non-existent in standard calling apps. 

Before diving into SuchCalls, let us first travel back in time to the early days of phreaking.

This early form of hacking began in the 1950s, when some teenagers became fascinated with telephones, networks, and the challenge of subverting and controlling them. A big part of phreaking was the thrill of simply making free phone calls, but a few early phreaks would later become famous for pushing the limits far beyond that—Steve Wozniak (aka Berkeley Blue), Steve Jobs (Oaf Tobar), and Kevin Poulsen (Dark Dante), among them. Other infamous phreaks include John Draper (aka Captain Crunch), the blind radio DJ and social engineer Denny Teresi, and hacker Kevin Mitnick (condor).

The electronic tone generator known as the "blue box," which helped users make free calls, was a common weapon in the phreaking arsenal. Through the '60s and '70s, telephone company test lines became "bridges," or party lines where phreakers congregrated. Other phreakers used a computer to dial long-distance access numbers, then roll through 6 or 7-digit combinations to hitch a free communication ride on calling cards. 

SuchCalls home screen. Image: SuchCalls

The digitization of communication in the 1980s forever altered phreaking, by which time many phreaks were already more interested in computer hacking anyway. But the phreakers didn't die, they just adapted. SuchCalls' Jered Morgan, Tuketu, and their collaborators share their phreaking forebearers' fascination with phones and networks. And they're hellbent on bringing that anarchic, prankster spirit into the modern digital age.

"The old phone system actually had all kinds of fun and interesting test numbers," Morgan told me. "You won't usually find them on cellphones or VoIP providers, however, so we wanted to bring that old landline-like experience that phone phreaks are accustomed to." (VoIP, or Voice Over Internet Protocol, is the group of methods and technologies involved in delivering calls over the internet and other networks.)

"We’re not perfect, but we care, and share a passion to help further certain natural, inherent, fundamental rights we all share."

"When we say we wanted to build a network with character, that really means a lot of things," added Tuketu. "To me it’s the little things that matter. The old phone system network had all kinds of fun quirks and interesting things you would find."

SuchCalls creators find inspiration across the spectrum—everyone from phone phreaks like Evan Doorbell and Bill Acker to Woz and their friends in and out of the "phreaker" scene. "This type of passion really doesn't come from any external inspiration—it comes from the inside and is internal first," Tuketu said. "We have been experimenting with telephony and all her secrets since an early age." Yet, despite being phreakers, Morgan and Tuketou see encryption as the primary driver behind the creation of SuchCalls.

"We live in a world, where nothing is private anymore, where every single one of these providers could offer this type of service, but the gripe has always been something like 'Well, it’s not encrypted once it leaves our network' or 'It will take too many resources,' etc.—just one negative thought after another," said Tuketu. "I say, even if it’s not encrypted once it leaves the network, we are still responsible to our users."

SuchCalls text screen. Image: SuchCalls

Tuketu said that people forget that if you're on a normal phone and someone has access to your network, they can see who you're calling while capturing the call's audio. "It’s not difficult—any level 1 network support guy can do it," he said. 

Morgan and Tuketu also brought the phreaker bridge to their app. The hope is that SuchCalls' bridges can be used for anonymous, encrypted conversations for, say, protest movements or revolt. Anyone who downloads SuchCalls can join a bridge, said Morgan. And because everything runs through an encrypted network, no call detail info can be pulled. 

"It’s a way for people to dial into a conference and not have to worry about the negative elements that usually come along with that setting," Tuketu said, declaring the SuchCalls bridge a means of protecting users' discussions of ideas, visions, and new possibilities. "On regular conference bridges, a savvy person can obtain your telephone number as long as they know the number you dialed by social engineering their way to your information."

"We’re not perfect, but we care, and share a passion to help further certain natural, inherent, fundamental rights we all share," he added.

A little hello from SuchCalls.

As for those easter eggs, Tuketu said he's not sure how many exist, and more are constantly being thought up and added to SuchCalls. Dial 9999 and you'll hear a synthesized tone sweep. In a nod to the 2600 Hz tone used in phreaker tools like Captain Crunch whistles and blue boxes, dialing 2600 plays a song. If you want to have your caller ID read back in the voice of Street Fighter, dial 958. Entering 0073735963 allows users to engage with a playable Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! (0073735963 is the code that takes gamers straight to Tyson). 

"We put Mike Tyson's Punchout!! on there one night when I got a text message from Lucky who had just listened to the song 'Retro', produced by J​.​J. Brown and Dan 'The Deacon' Maier of 5G," Tuketu said. "He sent me the Tyson code for NES. I was on my way home when I got his text, and I responded with '?' because I didn't recognize it at the time." 

"Once he told me what it was, I begin thinking about how to create it while making dinner that night," he explained. "Afer dinner, I went to my desk and created the dialplan before I went to sleep. It’s not perfect. It's quirky and you have to know what to do and when to do it, but that’s all a part of figuring things out."

"The easter eggs are really just little moments of joy that have always been and will always be," Tuketu noted. "If you look around, easter eggs are everywhere, in pretty much everything. It’s subtle changes that individuals make for others to notice. A weird form of phreakcacheing with art and jokes you could say."

Tuketu recalled that when he was young, he'd “hand scan” (a form of war dialing, the scanning of phone numbers for network weaknesses) and find really odd and weird recordings or really interesting systems. "When I would find one, it would be so exciting," he said. "There was never any malicious intent, but being able make the telephone do tricks and such, was really just a cool feeling."

"There’s just something about the spirit in this [Dogecoin] community, and we wanted to use what we know and have learned in life to give back to it."

Other SuchCall features include unmasking blocked caller IDs, as well as a built-in call recording function. The call recording is stored locally on users' phones, and can be accessed in the “History” tab. Tap it once and users can either listen, protect, or email it out. Tuketu noted that users can use whatever client or device they like, as long as it supports SuchCalls' encryption protocols. 

For now, SuchCalls only accepts payment in Dogecoin, though Bitcoin is not being ruled out. This is because Morgan and Tuketu find the Dogecoin community fun and passionate. "I wanted to support them in some way," Tuketu said. "These people use the currency to 'tip' on each other based on comments they like on the internet, but have also done some really amazing things with it. For example, pairing specially-trained dogs with special needs children; the doge4water.org raised $50,000 on a clean water project for Africa; then who could miss the Jamaican bobsled team they funded back in the past Winter Olympics?"

"There’s just something about the spirit in this community, and we wanted to use what we know and have learned in life to give back to it," Tuketu added. "The group is very inspiring. Much lols. Wow." And so it is with SuchCalls, who really seem to be in this game for the phreakin' lols. And, if you're willing, just a few Dogecoin.