Blind Whistling Phreaks and the FBI’s Historical Reliance on Phone Tap Criminality
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 ‘Whistler’ Emory.
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, Mister Rogers.
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.”
The FBI thought a blue box may have been used to avoid tolls, though they realized that Engressia “was capable of orally emitting a perfect twenty six hundred cycle tone, which could be used to direct distance dial any phone number in the country”.
The FBI reported that without any authorization from law enforcement personnel, an employee of Southern Bell Telephone & Telegraph had contacted Engressia, interviewed him, and later gave information from this interview to the FBI. This employee told the FBI that “Joseph Engressia, age twenty and blind, [was] interviewed and he admitted intense interest in telephone company systems and equipment. He is familiar with the practices as to test numbers, circuits, and operations of telephone companies. Engressia exhibited ability to whistle twenty six hundred cycle notes which is utilized by telephone company in toll network. He claimed he learned majority of information by trial and error using his touch-tone instrument. He claimed he did not wish to violate any law and that his activities with the telephone were for amusement and education.”
The FBI viewed Engressia as a real threat. On August 29, 1969, J. Edgar Hover sent a summary memo regarding Engressia’s activities to John Ehrlichman, counselor to President Nixon, to Melvin Laird, secretary of defense, and to James J. Rowley, the director of the U.S. Secret Service. While Hoover apprised these governmental bodies of his investigation and expressed concerns that Engressia had the power to undertake undetectable wiretaps, the FBI had no actual evidence that Engressia intercepted any phone calls, they only had concerns about such powers.
Fortunately, the FBI employees processing my FOIA request accidentally revealed parts of the identities of the two phone phreaks mentioned in Engressia’s file. An individual referred to as “also known as ‘Tandy Way’” is identified as a blind radio and telephone enthusiast living in Miami, and a “Mr. Jacobs” is revealed as the Kansas City resident accessing free phone calls to talk with Engressia. Jacobs had first met Engressia after seeing him on Huntley-Brinkley TV show, and contacted him first by letter, then by phone.
The FBI report indicates that the phone company had known about Engressia’s abilities for about a year:
“Joseph Engressia Jr. first came to the attention of the SBT&T Company in the summer of 1968. At about the same time there was a routine trouble report in the middle of August 1968, that was received by ___ showing a ‘blue box’ in use on the telephone number ___ Miami subscribed to by ___ Miami. ____ explained that a ‘blue box’ is a device that can be used to defraud the telephone company of the revenue from long-distance toll calls. This device produces multi-frequency tones which enable the user to make long-distance telephone calls and circumvent the billing equipment in the long-distance network”.
It is not clear if Engressia was using an actual blue box (an electronic device designed to make free calls by generating 2600 hz through a speaker) or if he simply whistled into his phone to produce the same results. This Sept. 1, 1969, report includes an account of a Canadian operator reporting Engressia for selling LD phone calls for $1.00 each at the University of Southern Florida. Engressia was suspected and fined $25.00, “however, he was reinstated with full honors shortly thereafter”.
An 8/29/69 FBI memo states that an employee “of the Florida Bell Telephone Company in Miami, Florida, illegally monitored conversations on Joe Engressia’s telephone # 274-0760. It is further alleged that these monitored conversations were divulged by ____ [presumably the Florida Bell employee] to an unnamed FBI Agent in Miami, Florida”. Later interviews confirmed that “the results of the monitoring [were] furnished to a Miami FBI Agent”. Another FBI memo reports that FBI source, employed at Southwestern Bell Telephone Company, learned undisclosed information “by monitoring telephone conversation between [Jacobs] and Engressia”.
On September 3, 1969, Jacobs wrote the FBI a detailed two-page letter extensively citing chapter and verse of the Communications Act and accusing the phone company and the FBI of violating wiretapping sections of the statute.
“I believe there has been a serious violation of the Communications Act of 1934, Section #605. Several days ago, FBI Kansas City agents ____ and ____visited my home and repeated back to me excerpts from a private conversation I had with a Mr. Joe Engressia (Tel: 274-0760) of Miami, Florida. Mr. Engressia for some time believed his phone was being monitored and in order to get the tapper to tip his hand, mentioned many words that might be of interest to the supposed tapper such as Autovon, etc. It is my information that a ____ of the Florida Bell Telephone Company has illegally monitored, recorded, and transcribed telephone conversations without the permission of the receiver and/or the sender and without a court order. ____ then divulged this conversation in the form of a written transcript to a Miami gent ____ who passed it on. Mssrs. ____ and ____ were good enough to confirm, in their visit to my home, that there had in fact been monitoring of a telephone line contrary to 47 U.S.C. 605”.
Jacobs then threatened to expose the FBI’s complicity in this illegal wiretap. He asked the FBI if they would fulfill their legal obligations to investigate his “allegations even though an FBI agent may indeed have been a part to the violation of 47 U.S.C. 605”. The letter closed with a request that the FBI advise him what a U.S. attorney will do with this information.
The FBI released no memos or files from the following few days and then, five days later, there were an odd series of unconvincing memos that appear designed to establish a paper trail of plausible deniability, claiming (in contradiction to FBI report from 8/29/69) that the FBI had been given records illegally obtained by the phone company. A September 8, 1969, memo from the Kansas City Special Agent in Charge to Hoover has the agent now claiming he doubted that the information the Bureau received from the phone company employee was reliable.
The next day the FBI produced a memo designed formalizing its “story”. A Miami FBI agent wrote Hoover claiming, “when interviewed Aug. 28 last by Bureau agents Miami, Re: Activities of Joseph Carl Engressia Jr. and [Jacobs] ____did not reveal telephone company had monitored telephone conversations between [Jacobs] and Engressia”. Given that previous FBI reports stated that their conversations had been illegally monitored by the phone company and illegally shared with the FBI, this report appears to be a ham-handed effort to manufacture records later to be used if Jacobs pushed for an investigation of illegal wiretapping.
In 1967, the Supreme Court ruled in Katz v. United States that Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches extended to telephone conversations, but the following year Congress added provisions to the 1968 Omnibus Crime Bill that fought the court’s decision by identifying a list of specific crimes (kidnapping, organized crime, marijuana distribution, etc.) meriting wiretaps. But the phone company’s spying on Engressia was way out of bounds under 1969 laws.
For a few days, the FBI re-circulated several versions of this same report; it was obviously feathering its nest in case of further legal inquiries at some point. The projected faux sotto voce tone of the FBI memos finds them pretending to “establish” that no actual records of illegally intercepted calls is comically damning. These track-covering memos are the last records appearing in Engressia’s file.
It seems curious that an incident, which a matter of days earlier had been of such urgency that the counselor to the president, the secretary of defense, and the director of the Secret Service had been alerted, was so suddenly dropped so quickly and quietly, never to be mentioned again. That such a formerly urgent matter would be so quickly scuttled, set aside and forgotten is a strong measure of the threat Jacobs’ accusations represented to the FBI and their special relationship with the phone company.
In those years, before Judge Harold Green broke up the phone monopoly and birthed the baby bells, it was easy for Hoover’s FBI to maintain a special arrangement with the phone company – an arrangement under which the FBI ran warrantless wiretaps and pin registers largely as Hoover saw fit and with the phone company’s compliance. No questions were asked. The public inspection of such matters would have threatened Hoover’s special relationship with the phone company.
Fearing public disclosure of its illegal eavesdropping on Engressia, the phone company waited until 1971 to drop the bag on him, once some time had passed and Jacob’s threats were no longer in play.
But this tale, even 37 years later, has relevance beyond the particulars of an ingenious blind renegade phone whistler. It is but one artifact of the largely unexplored history of the FBI’s symbiotic enabling of the phone company’s illegal wiretapping – a history with increasing relevance in the present, as the White House pressures Congress to provide immunity to a historically abusive industry, long protected by the sort of formal arrangements with law enforcement documented in these files.
DAVID PRICE’s Anthropological Intelligence: The Deployment and Neglect of American Anthropology in the Second World War has just been published by Duke University Press. He can be reached at email@example.com.