Manhattan Mystery of Creepy Jingles and Random Noises Solved

Here’s a puzzler for you: If you’re phreaking something that’s not exactly a phone, are you still a phreak?

That question probably never crossed the minds of New Yorkers who were acoustically assaulted on the normally peaceful sidewalks of Manhattan over the summer by creepy sounds emanating from streetside WiFi kiosks. The auditory attacks caused quite a stir locally, leading to wild theories that Russian hackers were behind it all. Luckily, the mystery has been solved, and it turns out to have been part prank, part protest, and part performance art piece.

To understand the exploit, realize that New York City has removed thousands of traditional pay phones from city sidewalks recently and replaced them with LinkNYC kiosks, which are basically WiFi hotspots with giant HDTV displays built into them. For the price of being blitzed with advertisements while strolling by, anyone can make a free phone call using the built-in VOIP app. That was the key that allowed [Mark Thomas], an old-school phreak and die-hard fan of the pay telephones that these platforms supplanted, to launch his attack. It’s not exactly rocket surgery; [Mark] dials one of the dozens of conference call numbers he has set up with pre-recorded audio snippets. A one-minute delay lets him crank the speakerphone volume up to 11 and abscond. The recordings vary, but everyone seemed most creeped out by the familiar jingle of the [Mr. Softee] ice cream truck franchise, slowed down and distorted to make it sound like something from a fever dream.

Yes, it’s a minimal hack, and normally we don’t condone the misuse of public facilities, even ones as obnoxious as LinkNYC appears to be. But it does make a statement about the commercialization of the public square, and honestly, we’re glad to see something that at least approaches phreaking again. It’s a little less childish than blasting porn audio from a Target PA system, and far less dangerous than activating a public safety siren remotely.

23 thoughts on “Manhattan Mystery of Creepy Jingles and Random Noises Solved

    1. When designed as a purpose built system utilizing embedded windows, updates are not necessary. I have equipment at work that is top of the line for the industry and they run XP Embedded that has been unchanged for 6 years. The Windows based software used to dump data, configurations, and programs does get updated routinely, but the machine itself dos not.

      1. yes, but these things are not well designed, they are contracted by the city government from the lowest bidder and intended for open public network use while being fed advertisements constantly… I cant see any crack in that impenetrable shell

        1. I agree with the bug holding a hammer. What I’m getting at is that there are rampant rumors floating around that anytime someone uses one of those pests to charge their phones they will get clobbered with phone attracting malware. And that because the first several hundred of those were already contaminated with the stuff. It seems these left the remote access functions enabled.

          1. “phone attracting malware”

            What is that? It sounds AWESOME! I am imagining some poor schmuck being accosted by a flock of flying feral cellphones after having plugged his own into the bright shiny box.

      2. Somehow I’m not convinced that embedded windows devices have such flawless security as to never need an update to patch some sort of zero day that wasn’t known at the time of release. That’s hilariously absurd.

  1. Am i missing something? Its not really a hack or phreaking as he has a conference call that is playing the music and just dials in to that number to play the music out loud. If you squint really hard I guess the ability to turn the music up may be a bit of a hack but really is just taking advantage of what is possibly a built in feature.

    1. It was ready to consider it a hack because the UI seems to drop out of “phone mode” while the call is still running, which is why nobody found out how it worked. But he has to walk up to each and every of these things on his own every time, which makes it pretty lame.

  2. So, lemme get this straight. Using a device as it was intended to be used is vandalism? The fact you invoked “White privilege” seems to me that you’re nothing more than a Professional Victim, and probably a horrible person to associate with. Begone

  3. Wow! NYC has giant cellphone kiosks?!?

    I am thinking of just how hard it is to get my wife to acknowledge that I have her on speaker before she says something she shouldn’t announce to the room. These things sound aweful! I think I would be tempted to mess with them if they existed in my neighborhood too!

    “normally we don’t condone the misuse of public facilities, even ones as obnoxious as LinkNYC appears to be”

    That’s fine HaD. You take the safe route if you wish. I condone it. I really really condone it. I wish anyone misusing these things all the luck in the world! LMAO, worst idea ever!

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