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Current issue : #52 | Release date : 1998-01-26 | Editor : route
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extract.cPhrack Staff
Title : On the Morality of Phreaking
Author : Phrack Staff
---[  Phrack Magazine   Volume 8, Issue 52 January 26, 1998, article 09 of 20

-------------------------[  On the Morality of Phreaking

--------[  Phrack Staff

             The issue of phone phreaking is an interesting topic for 
        discussion concerning morality.  For those not familiar with this 
        topic, I will give a brief outline of the subject.  Following the 
        outline of phreaking, I will analyze the issue of whether 
        phreaking as defined in the outline is a morally right act, from 
        the perspective of John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant.  Finally, 
        I will address the fallacies of each of the arguments they might 
        present concerning the topic and provide a determination of which 
        stands as the superior argument for this subject.

             The meaning of phone phreaking has changed over the years; 
        its initial growth can be traced in a large part to a magazine 
        named TAP (Technical Assistance Program) started by Abbie Hoffman 
        in 1971 as part of his Youth International Party (YIPL) (Meinel, 
        5).  The intent at this point in time was to utilize technology 
        in order to subvert government and big business institutions.  As 
        time progressed, phreaking became less politically motivated and 
        instead was led more by technology enthusiasts interested in 
        learning about the phone systems and how they worked.  In 1984, 
        2600 magazine was formed by Eric Corley in order to further this 
        spread of knowledge (Corley).

             The definition of phone phreaking I will use for the 
        purposes of this paper is that which the prominent members of the 
        hacking/phreaking "scene" would use.  In discussing the 
        motivations of a phone phreaker, I speak from both personal 
        experience and from numerous conversations with individual 
        phreakers over a period of years.  Phreaking is the pursuit of 
        knowledge concerning how phone systems operate.  The skills that 
        a phreaker learns in this pursuit of knowledge has the effect 
        that they can often gain control of a phone switch in order to 
        make add additional phone lines, modify billing information, and 
        other such activities, but these are generally considered 
        unrelated to that which an actual phreaker is interested in, and 
        I will focus only on the activities of those true phreakers that 
        are motivated by the desire for knowledge and not for other 
        gains.  Generally however, phreaking does involve utilizing the 
        resources of a phone company switch without the permission of the 
        company owning it, in order to both explore its capabilities and 
        to communicate with other phreakers in order to share knowledge.

             John Mill, given his views of morality as found in 
        Utilitarianism, would find that phone phreaking is a morally 
        right act.  In order to find that an act is morally right, it 
        should have a net benefit in terms of the happiness it adds to 
        the world versus the opposite of happiness it causes (Mill, 7).  
        To show that phreaking is morally right, first it must be shown 
        that it does have a positive effect on the general happiness in 
        the world, and then proceed to show that any negative effects 
        that phreaking may have are sufficiently minor so as to be 
        outweighed by the positive effects.  If the positive effects are 
        greater than the negative effects, then clearly the act is 
        morally right.

             First, the actual benefit that phreaking has for the 
        individuals involved in it is not directly the pursuit of 
        happiness, but rather the pursuit of knowledge.  Since morality 
        is determined by happiness, not knowledge, how knowledge relates 
        to happiness needs to be resolved.  The reason this pursuit still 
        relates to morality is that individuals that are pursuing 
        knowledge for no motivation other than itself are doing so 
        because the gain of knowledge has become a part of those 
        individuals' happiness.  It is in the same way that Mill argues 
        the pursuit of virtue can be reconciled with the pursuit of 
        happiness that knowledge can also be reconciled (Mill, 35-37).  

             Phreaking does have a benefit to the individuals that are 
        involved in its practice.  This benefit is in the form of a gain 
        of knowledge concerning the phone systems.  This knowledge is 
        gained in generally one of two ways, both of which are common 
        methods of learning and the reader will recognize.  The first is 
        through experimentation and exploration.  By accessing the phone 
        switch, phreakers are able to experiment with its capabilities 
        and teach themselves how to operate it.  In the second case, the 
        phone switches that phreakers have learned to use are utilized as 
        a method of communication with other phreakers.  The free 
        communication that comes about as a result of the phone system 
        knowledge that has been gained allows phreakers to exchange new 
        information and teach each other, either as peers or through a 
        teacher-pupil relationship, even more about the phone system.  In 
        both cases, knowledge is gained, and as knowledge is a part of a 
        phreaker's happiness, the general happiness of the world is 

             Any negative impact phreaking has is minimal, and indirect.  
        The resources that are being used are possessed by phone 
        companies, corporations.  A corporation of itself is not a moral 
        being, but a corporation has an effect on three different types 
        of people: stock holders, employees, and consumers.  

             A stock holder's interest in a corporation is purely on the 
        profits that it produces.  Stockholders could be negatively 
        effected by phreakers if a phreaker causes a loss of revenue, or 
        an increase in costs.  A loss in revenue for a phone company can 
        only occur if the phreaker uses some resource that if not in use 
        would otherwise be used by a paying customer, or if the phreaker 
        herself would have paid for the resource utilization if it had 
        not been attainable for free.  In the first case, phone systems 
        use a technique called multiplexing to handle simultaneous phone 
        calls between switches.  If a phone system is below capacity, 
        there are empty time slices or frequencies (depending on type of 
        trunk) in the data that is transmitted between switches.  Adding 
        a new connection between switches involves only filling one of 
        these idle slots, with no degradation of quality for existing 
        phone calls, and no marginal cost associated with the additional 
        call.  It is only in the case where a phone system is filled to 
        capacity that a phreaker using a slot would prevent an existing 
        customer from using the phone system, resulting in a loss of 
        revenue.  In fact, phreakers being more cognizant of this fact 
        that the general public will purposely explore the phone system 
        when it is at its lowest capacity times (late at night and on 
        weekends) just to avoid this situation.  

             The second part of the stock holders interests is that a 
        phreaker would potentially pay for the phone calls she is making 
        for free.  An attraction of phreaking is that it does not cost 
        money to involve ones self in, and most phreakers first start in 
        their youth when they do not have access to being able to pay for 
        phone calls to other phreakers, or even more to the point there 
        is no price they could pay to gain access to a switch.  If the 
        phone company were to make this available at a price to 
        phreakers, almost universally they would not be able to afford 
        the price, and would have to stop their gains in knowledge in 
        that subject.  This would not result in any additional revenue 
        for the phone company, only a loss of knowledge that the phreaker 
        could have otherwise gained.

             Employees are only impacted if they are either aware of 
        something occurring, or have to perform some activity as a result 
        of a phreaker's activities.  However, a phreaker only interacts 
        with the phone company's equipment in an under utilized state, 
        and not with employees.  Further, phreakers do not cause damage 
        or interfere with the operation of the phone company's equipment, 
        and so require no employee intervention.  In this manner, no 
        employees are affected by phreakers.

             Finally, consumers are also not negatively impacted by 
        phreakers.  A phreaker's interactions with switches does not 
        cause any disruptions in service or prevent consumers from using 
        the same switches simultaneously.  Further, there is no 
        interaction that takes place with consumers as a result of a 
        phreaker's activities, and so they are never impacted in any 

             It is possible there can be a negative impact as a result of 
        the perception of phreakers and based on people with different 
        moral viewpoints than the utilitarian view.  Some people are 
        scared by a phreaker's knowledge, and some people are intent on 
        protecting their resources even from those with moral pursuits.  
        These people may become agitated as a result of a phreaker's 
        activities, and although they have no utilitarian reason to be, 
        their agitation should still be considered.  However, weighing 
        the moral righteousness of the knowledge being gained, an 
        agitation seems to be greatly outweighed.  Based on these 
        criteria, it is clear from the utilitarian viewpoint phreaking is 
        overall beneficial and is morally right.

             In contrast to the views of Mill, Immanuel Kant would not 
        find phreaking to be a moral act.  In order to find an act moral 
        from a Kantian perspective, it must be in accord with duty (Kant, 
        9), universalized (Kant, 14), and then tested for a contradiction 
        in thought (Kant, 32) or a contradiction in will (Kant, 32).  If 
        an action does not succeed in passing these tests, it can not be 
        a moral act.

             The goal of phreaking, the pursuit of knowledge, is in 
        accordance with duty.  An individual has an inclination towards 
        improving himself, gaining knowledge being one way of doing so, 
        so this would be an imperfect duty to self (Kant, 31).  

             There are several possible manners in which the act of 
        phreaking could be universalized.  One could say "all people 
        should use the phone system without paying in order to pursue 
        knowledge."  This is not a contradiction in thought, a phone 
        system that allowed anyone pursuing knowledge to use it free of 
        charge could exist and persist.  However, there would be two 
        major results of having this sort of system.  First, the loss in 
        revenue from large numbers of people no longer paying would 
        result in those communicating when not pursuing knowledge 
        subsidizing those that were.  Second, a free phone system would 
        have an enormous increase in usage, causing it to reach its 
        capacity quickly and preventing it from being available to those 
        who needed to use it.  Nobody wants to have to spend hours 
        attempting to make a phone call in order to get through, and so a 
        system of this type is a contradiction in will for most people, 
        and would thus not be moral.

             A preferred universalization of phreaking would be "all 
        people interested in gaining knowledge should be able to freely 
        use unutilized corporate resources in order to do so."  The goal 
        of a corporation is to maximize profits.  If a corporation has 
        under utilized resources with a value, it is in the company's 
        interest to produce additional revenue based on those resources.  
        If a company does not have under utilized resources, it does not 
        apply to this universalization.  The final case is if a company 
        has under utilized resources, but the resources have no value.  
        If they have no value, of what use would the resource be to a 
        person interested in gaining knowledge (i.e. if it was useful to 
        someone, it would have value).  So it is a contradiction of 
        thought for a company to have an under utilized resource of value 
        for an extended period of time; if those seeking knowledge are 
        able to recognize an under utilized resource with value, then the 
        company would quickly realize that resource does have value, and 
        utilize its value for profit or else sell the resource off.  

             Because there is no manner in which phreaking can be 
        universalized so as to preserve its intent and not provide a 
        contradiction of thought or will, it can not be a moral act in 
        accordance with the views of Kant.

             In analyzing which of Mill or Kant has a more solid 
        argument, it becomes clear that neither philosophy is ideal for 
        all situations.  Both the utilitarian and Kantian viewpoints have 
        disadvantages that are addressed below, however as a whole the 
        Mill utilitarian view of phreaking provides a more rational view 
        that is applicable to those who are phreakers.

             First, the utilitarian viewpoints of Mill only considers the 
        individual act in the context of the current state of the world 
        in deciding if it is moral  That is, a single act may in all 
        cases contribute to the general happiness of the world, but it 
        may also leave the world changed in some other respect that does 
        not add to or take away from the general happiness.  However, the 
        change that has taken place may very will have an impact on how 
        that same act or a completely unrelated act would impact the 
        world so as to make what was once moral now immoral.  Although 
        the potential for alternative moral acts remain in that world, 
        and so you have not reduced its potential for happiness, what it 
        has done is impacted the available choices of others in how they 
        can go about acting in a moral manner.  This is not a concern of 
        Mill, but of those interested in freedom, as an end to itself, 
        actions promoting the general happiness may adversely affect the 
        freedom of others to act in a moral manner.

             The view Kant gives of morality provides that if an act can 
        not be universally applied, it can not be morally right.  In the 
        case of phreaking, is it possible that it is at some point for 
        some people a morally right act to phreak, but not for all people 
        at all times?  The basis for this argument is that there are some 
        people who are both honestly extremely interested in the phone 
        systems and do not have the resources to explore their interest 
        in any reasonable fashion for some period of time.  The typical 
        case is with a phreaker is a young adolescent that has become 
        intrigued with phones.  I would contend that for one that is 
        truly interested in learning and has no alternative means, that 
        it is morally right for that person to phreak.  

             However, as that person grows older and gains access to 
        resources, alternative means become available for him to continue 
        to learn about the phone systems (money buys resources, a job at 
        the phone company provides an immense opportunity to learn).  At 
        the point where alternative means are available, it is no longer 
        moral for that person to phreak.  Where exactly that point occurs 
        is a blurred line, but it is certainly not a universal law as 
        Kant would imply.

             In summary, the subject of phreaking is certainly a 
        controversial subject and would be viewed by many as an out of 
        hand immoral activity.  But, at closer examination it is actually 
        something that is done for very moral reasons and although the 
        morality of a phreaker may not necessarily correspond to the 
        morality of all others in society, it is certainly in the mind of 
        the true phreaker a moral activity in which they are engaging, 
        with intelligent rational premises backing up their moral views.  
        Although Kant may not agree with the moral views that are held by 
        the phreaker, the individual circumstances confronted by the 
        individual are not considered and if morality can be decided on 
        an individual basis, as Mill allows, then it may just be that the 
        Kantian view may be too restricting to account for contemporary 
        issues faced in today's technological society.

----[  EOF

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