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Convertino's Phone Phreaking Leads To Cyberweapons Career


Let's take a look now at a different kind of conflict: cyber warfare. In that realm, Mike Convertino is something of a legend, who made his name developing cyber weapons for the Air Force. He still can't talk about a lot of what he did in the military, but there are some clues. He was decorated in Bosnia in the mid-1990s, around the same time the U.S. deployed its first lethal drone in combat. And after September 11th, Convertino crafted the standards for the rapid sharing of electronic intelligence, and commanded a team of 600 cyber warriors.

NPR's Steve Henn brings us this profile.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: As a kid, Mike Convertino was fascinated by how things worked.

MIKE CONVERTINO: I would tear radios and televisions and other things apart.

HENN: Much to his parents chagrin.

CONVERTINO: It was a little scary for them, particularly if the device worked before I got at it. And it took a few years for me to get so that I could take something apart and put it back together and have it - actually have it work.

HENN: His career in the Air Force was almost entirely an accident.

CONVERTINO: The bell repairman came to our house one day.

HENN: This was in the late 70s, and this phone repairman did something Mike found magical: He dialed a couple numbers, and then Mike's home phone called him back. Mike peppered the repairman with questions. And the repairman explained that the phone system was really just a giant machine, that it had its own language. And Mike decided he wanted to learn how to speak it.

CONVERTINO: You know, trying different random numbers, kind of like war dialing.

HENN: From that point on, he was obsessed with hacking the phone system - phone phreaking. In the beginning, he didn't even know those words, hacking or phreaking. He was just curious. Soon, he figured out how to watch the phone traffic pulse through his little town in Upstate New York. He could disconnect trunk lines or crash the network, but he didn't.

CONVERTINO: I was curious in the purest sense of the word.

HENN: And then, in high school, he took an AP physics class and got kind of lazy. He was supposed to build a simple circuit for a school project, but...

CONVERTINO: I was kind of slacking off, and didn't get to my project, really, in time. And so I grabbed one of my boxes.

HENN: Mike had lots of these boxes. This one was designed to turn on the microphone on any telephone, remotely. He had built it himself. Mike says he explained all this to his teacher.

CONVERTINO: Yeah, he didn't really believe me that I could do these things with a phone, so he gave me a phone number.

HENN: For a school administrator.

CONVERTINO: I connected the device and, yeah, the mic came alive.

HENN: And suddenly, Mike's entire physics class was listening in on a conversation taking place inside an administrator's closed office on the other side of the school. It was a bad scene. The box was quickly unplugged, and Mike was sent straight to the vice principals office.

CONVERTINO: This is where I ended up coming into the military.

HENN: Really. The vice principal didn't force Mike to go sign up, but there happened to be two military recruiters down there, right as he walked in.

CONVERTINO: They're asking me, what are you in for, you know. And then I told them what was going on. And they're, like, you shouldn't be punished.

HENN: When the vice principal came out to deal with Mike, that Air Force recruiter - a major - stood up, grabbed the school administrator's hand and said thank you for introducing me to this fine young man. Mike avoided getting detention, and in the end ended, up with a full Air Force scholarship to college.

CONVERTINO: I also kept in contact with all my friends from my early phone phreaking days.

HENN: Some phone phreakers from Mike's era ended up infamous. They were on the lam, running from the feds. One phreaker, Jeff Moss, founded DEF CON, which has now become an enormous hacker convention that takes place every summer in Las Vegas. Mike kept in touch, but he kept his Air Force career largely to himself. Then, in 2007, he came out of the closet as an Air Force colonel and started publically recruiting hackers at DEF CON.

CONVERTINO: I see myself in these folks.

HENN: He would organize Air Force teams to compete in hacking contests. Afterward, they'd fan out and talk the most promising talent.

CONVERTINO: When I was coming up, it was a really tiny community. But now, it's incredible to see thousands of kids.

HENN: Mike Convertino's retired from the Air Force now. But he still talks about the work he did there in terms of keeping the country safe. He talks about hackers in the same way. He says by exposing flaws in how the machines around us work, in the end, they make us safer, too. Steve Henn, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Henn is NPR's technology correspondent based in Menlo Park, California, who is currently on assignment with Planet Money. An award winning journalist, he now covers the intersection of technology and modern life - exploring how digital innovations are changing the way we interact with people we love, the institutions we depend on and the world around us. In 2012 he came frighteningly close to crashing one of the first Tesla sedans ever made. He has taken a ride in a self-driving car, and flown a drone around Stanford's campus with a legal expert on privacy and robotics.