It’s not too often you get to speak with a bonafide early Silicon Valley legend. John “Cap’n Crunch” Draper made his name as a phone phreak, pranked with Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, developed word processor EasyWriter (used on the Apple II and the first IBM PC) and is still hacking today – albeit with different tools in a radically different landscape.
John Draper wins fans at Bitspiration 2012 (image credit: Basia Budniak)
“Hacking eventually turned into activism, using hacking for political means,” he says via Skype from Krakow, Poland, where he’s speaking this week at tech conference Bitspiration. “Anonymous have their own political views about what they think is right or wrong and, as far as I’m concerned, everyone has the right to express their views. But I don’t really think they should have done what they did.”
He’s talking, of course, about leaderless hacker network Anonymous’ denial of service attacks on the likes of eBay and PayPal, the latter in response to PayPal’s closure of the account used to support donations to WikiLeaks. “I think they were a little bit too blatant. It’s like stirring up the hornet’s nest,” Draper says. “It’s not a good thing to do, especially when you’re dealing with the government.”
Pranking the Pope with a little Blue Box
Draper, 69, has good reason to treat the US government, and the press, with caution. He became infamous as one of the first to discover that the toy whistles given out in Cap’n Crunch cereal boxes could produce just the right pure tone (2600 Hertz) to trick the telephone system into giving free long-distance calls. In 1971, he gave an interview to Esquire (“Secrets of the Little Blue Box”) that helped lead to his arrest the next year on toll fraud charges, the first of several such arrests.
The interview also caught the attention of future Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who invited Draper to his dorm at UC Berkeley for what became a session on how to use phreaking device the Blue Box (pictured above).
“He wanted me to call the Pope for him,” Draper says. “I said sure, why not – so I called Rome information, got the number for the Vatican and called the Vatican. It took a while to find someone who spoke English… then I gave the phone to Woz and said ‘you’ve got the Vatican on the line’. And then Woz said: ‘I must talk to the Pope right away. This is Henry Kissinger. I must confess to my sins.'”
Wozniak never got the Pope on the line “primarily because it was 4.30 in the morning and the Pope was asleep,” Draper says. Wozniak and fellow Apple co-founder Steve Jobs seem to tell different versions of the same story – but the meeting did prompt a friendship that led to Draper’s early development work on Apple a few years later. He is still listed as a friend on Wozniak’s website.
Draper had less to do with Jobs. “He was kind of in his own little world there,” he says. “I did invite him over to my place in Los Gatos to lift weights back in the day. He was just this normal guy, kind of young, 17 or 18 when I met him.”
These days, Draper is semi-retired, living in Hollywood with frequent speaking tours and precarious personal finances (Draper confirms he was broke until he sold the rights to his story – “now I’m salvaged”). His current projects include an autobiography (to be available in print and on iPad), agile software development agency Crunch Creations and Crunch TV, a collaboration with Germany’s Vulnerability Labs.
Anonymous – “There’s got to be a better way”
Draper has mixed views on modern-day “hacktivists” such as Anonymous and Wikileaks. He’s not apolitical – he supports the Occupy movement and quit a “jerk job” working on missile technology on principle, for example. But hacking for him, he says, is non-destructive and more about learning how to use computers and what to do with them.
“Sometimes it might take a wakeup call for people to realise what’s going on,” he says. “But I don’t like that Anonymous are disrupting communications and internet services as a whole. I think that’s bad. There has got to be a better way to wake people up politically.”
Likewise, he finds Julian Assange’s work with WikiLeaks “inspiring” but has reservations. “I’ve been in the military, I understand the importance of military secrets,” he says. “And to release those secrets out to the public just because one person thinks the public should know these things is bad, in the sense that it could result in people getting killed. However from what I understand, Julian was very selective as to what kind of info he released.”
Draper, for himself, tries to keep a low profile in plain view, which includes public social networking and a disarmingly open approach to media requests. “The more open I am, I think the better off I am. I want the authorities to know where I am. If they know where I am, they’re going to leave me alone.”
Bitspiration (12 – 13 June) is a new international tech conference that takes place in Poland, focusing on business, VC and startups, organised by Chris Kowalczyk (HardGamma Ventures) and Andrzej Targosz (Proidea Foundation).