Teardown: Tap Trapper

The modern consumer is not overly concerned with their phone conversations being monitored. For one thing, Google and Amazon have done a tremendous job of conditioning them to believe that electronic gadgets listening to their every word isn’t just acceptable, but a near necessity in the 21st century. After all, if there was a better way to turn on the kitchen light than having a recording of your voice uploaded to Amazon so they can run it through their speech analysis software, somebody would have surely thought of it by now.

But perhaps more importantly, there’s a general understanding that the nature of telephony has changed to the point that few outside of three letter agencies can realistically intercept a phone call. Sure we’ve seen the occasional spoofed GSM network pop up at hacker cons, and there’s a troubling number of StingRays floating around out there, but it’s still a far cry from how things were back when folks still used phones that plugged into the wall. In those days, the neighborhood creep needed little more than a pair of wire strippers to listen in on your every word.

Which is precisely why products like the TA-1356 Tap Trapper were made. It was advertised as being able to scan your home’s phone line to alert you when somebody else might be listening in, whether it was a tape recorder spliced in on the pole or somebody in another room lifting the handset. You just had to clip it onto the phone distribution panel and feed it a fresh battery once and awhile.

If the red light came on, you’d know something had changed since the Tap Trapper was installed and calibrated. But how did this futuristic defender of communications privacy work? Let’s open it up and take a look.

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Ask Hackaday: With Landline Use In Decline, What’s To Be Done With The Local Loop?

Walking is great exercise, but it’s good for the mind too: it gives one time to observe and to think. At least that’s what I do on my daily walks, and being me, what I usually observe and think about is the local infrastructure along my route. Recently, I was surprised to see a number of telephone company cabinets lying open next to the sidewalk. Usually when you see an open box, there’s a telephone tech right there, working on the system. But these were wide open and unattended, which I thought was unusual.

I, of course, took the opportunity to check out the contents of these pedestals in detail. Looking at the hundreds of pairs of brightly colored wire all neatly terminated and obviously installed and maintained at great expense, I was left wondering why someone would leave such a valuable asset exposed to the elements. With traditional POTS, or plain old telephone service, on the decline, the world may no longer have much use for the millions of miles of copper cable feeding back to telco central offices (COs) anymore. But there’s got to be something this once-vital infrastructure is still good for, leading me to ask: what’s to be done with the local loop?

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Wood And Carbon Rods Used For This Handsome And Effective Microphone

Anyone who was active in the phreaking scene or was even the least bit curious about the phone system back in the Ma Bell days no doubt remembers the carbon capsule microphone in the mouthpiece of many telephone handsets. With carbon granules sandwiched between a diaphragm and a metal plate, they were essentially sound-driven variable resistors, and they worked well enough to be the standard microphone for telephony for decades.

In an attempt to reduce complicated practices to their fundamentals, [Simplifier] has undertaken this surprisingly high-fidelity carbon microphone build that hearkens back to the early days of the telephone. It builds on previous work that was more proof of concept but still impressive. In both builds, the diaphragm of the microphone is a thin piece of wood, at first carved from a single block of softwood, then later improved by attaching a thin piece of pine to a red oak frame. The electrical side of the mic has four carbon rods running from the frame to the center of the diaphragm, where they articulate in a carbon block with small divots dug into it. As the diaphragm vibrates, the block exerts more or less pressure on the rods, varying the current across the mic and reproducing the sound. It works quite well, judging by the video after the break.

Congratulations to [Simplifier] for another great build and top-notch craftsmanship. We’ve seen homebrew vacuum tubes, conductive glass, and solar cells from him before, which sort of makes him the high-tech version of Primitive Technology. We’re looking forward to whatever comes next. Continue reading “Wood And Carbon Rods Used For This Handsome And Effective Microphone”

Hardware Hack Makes Robocall Blocking Service Even Better

Sorry to bear sad tidings, but your car’s extended warranty is about to expire. At least that’s what you’ll likely hear if you answer one of those robocalls that have descended like a plague upon us. We applaud any effort to control the flood of robocalls, even if it means supplementing a commercial blocking service with a DIY ring-blocker.

The commercial service that [Jim] engaged to do his landline blocking is called Nomorobo – get it? It uses the Simultaneous Ringing feature many VoIP carriers support to intercept blacklisted robocallers, but with a catch: it needs caller ID data, so it lets the first ring go through. [Jim]’s box intercepts the ringing signal coming from his Xfinity modem using a full-wave rectifier and an analog input on an Arduino. Once the ring pattern is received, the Arduino flips a relay that connects all the phones in the house to the line, letting the call ring through. If Nomorobo has blocked the call, he’ll never hear a thing. There were a few glitches to deal with, like false positives from going off- and on-hook, but those were handled in software. There’s also a delay in displaying caller ID information on his phones, but it’s a small price to pay for peace.

Any escalation in the war on robocalls is justified, and we applaud [Jim] for his service. Should you feel like joining the fray, step one is to know your enemy. This primer on robocalling will help.

Thanks to [Phil] for the tip.

House Training A Military TA-1024A Field Telephone

After spotting some interesting military phones at a museum, [CuriousMarc] wondered what it would take to retrofit these heavy duty pieces of telecom equipment for civilian use. He knew most of the internals would be a lost cause, but reasoned that if he could reverse engineer key elements such as the handset and keypad, he might be able to connect them to the electronics of a standard telephone. Luckily for us, he was kind enough to document the process.

There were a number of interesting problems that needed to be solved, but the first and perhaps largest of them was the unusual wiring of the keypad. It wasn’t connected in the way modern hackers like us might expect, and [CuriousMarc] had to end up doing some pretty significant rewiring. By cutting the existing traces on the PCB with a Dremel and drilling new holes to run his wires around the back, he was able to convert it over to a wiring scheme that contemporary touch tone phones could use.

An adapter needed to be fabricated to mount a basic electret microphone in place of the original dynamic one, but the original speaker was usable. He wanted to adapt the magnetic sensor that detected when the handset was off the hook, but in the end it was much easier to just drill a small hole and use a standard push button.

The main board of the phone is a perfect example of the gorgeous spare-no-expense construction you’d expect from a military communications device, but unfortunately it had to go in the bin. In its place is the guts of a lowly RCA phone that was purchased for the princely sum of $9.99. [CuriousMarc] won’t be able to contact NORAD anymore, but at least he’ll be able to order a pizza. The red buttons on the keypad, originally used to set the priority level of the call on the military’s AUTOVON telephone network, have now been wired to more mundane features of the phone such as redial.

While this is fine for a one-off project, we’d love to see a drop-in POTS or VoIP conversion for these phones that didn’t involve so much modification and rewiring. Now that we have some documentation for things like the keypad and hook sensor, it shouldn’t be hard to take their idiosyncrasies into account with a custom PCB. Dragging vintage gear into the modern era is always a favorite pastime for hackers, so maybe somebody out there will be inspired to take on the challenge.

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Teardown Of A 50 Year Old Modem

A few years ago, I was out at the W6TRW swap meet at the parking lot of Northrop Grumman in Redondo Beach, California. Tucked away between TVs shaped like polar bears and an infinite variety of cell phone chargers and wall warts was a small wooden box. There was a latch, a wooden handle, and on the side a DB-25 port. There was a switch for half duplex and full duplex. I knew what this was. This was a modem. A wooden modem. Specifically, a Livermore Data Systems acoustically coupled modem from 1965 or thereabouts.

The Livermore Data Systems Modem, where I found it. It cost me $20

The probability of knowing what an acoustically coupled modem looks like is inversely proportional to knowing what Fortnite is, so for anyone reading this who has no idea what I’m talking about, I’ll spell it out. Before there was WiFi and Ethernet and cable modems and fiber everywhere, you connected to the Internet and BBSes via phone lines. A modem turns digital data, in this case a serial connection, into analog data or sound. Oh yeah, we had phone lines, too. The phone lines and the phones in your house were owned by AT&T. Yes, you rented a phone from the phone company.

90s kids might remember plugging in a US Robotics modem into your computer, then plugging an RJ-11 jack into the modem. When this wooden modem was built, that would have been illegal. Starting with the communications act of 1934, it was illegal to attach anything to the phone in your house. This changed in 1956 with Hush-A-Phone Corp v. United States, which ruled you could mechanically attach something to a phone’s headset. (In Hush-A-Phone’s case, it was a small box that fit over a candlestick phone to give you more privacy.)

The right to attach something to AT&T’s equipment changed again in 1968 with Carterphone decision that allowed anyone to connect something electronically to AT&T’s network. This opened the door for plugging an RJ-11 phone jack directly into your computer, but it wasn’t until 1978 that the tariffs, specifications, and certifications were worked out. The acoustically coupled modem was the solution to sending data through the phone lines from 1956 until 1978. It was a hack of the legal system.

This leaves an ancient modem like the one sitting on my desk in an odd position in history. It was designed, marketed and sold before the Carterphone decision, and thus could not connect directly to AT&T’s network. It was engineered before many of the integrated chips we take for granted were rendered in silicon. The first version of this modem was introduced only a year or so after the Bell 103 modem, the first commercially available modem, and is an excellent example of what can be done with thirteen or so transistors. It’s time for the teardown, so let’s dig in.

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Reverse Engineering A Telephonic Relay Device

The Plain Old Telephone Service, or POTS, doesn’t get a lot of love from the average person anymore. Perhaps once in a while a payphone will be of use when a phone battery has died, but by and large many people simply don’t have hardwired phones anymore. However, that doesn’t mean that the old landline can’t be put to good use. As [Felix Vollmer] shows us, it’s still possible to get useful hardware running over the phone line.

The YC-KZ02DN is a simple device which hooks up to a standard phone line. It’s capable of answering calls and responding to commands by switching its various relays on or off. [Felix] wasn’t quite happy with the stock functionality, however. Investigation showed the onboard STC15W202S microcontroller can be repogrammed over serial via an unpopulated header. Thus opened the door to hacking the device.

[Felix]’s alternative firmware has a couple of key features that make it valuable. Longer PINs are supported, decreasing the likelihood that malicious actors can gain access to the system. Additionally, the device is set to restore the last relay state after a power loss event. This makes the device far more useful for situations where it’s important to ensure consistent operation. It’s no use if an intermittent power loss stops your livestock’s water trough from filling, for example.

In this day and age of the Internet of Things, an old school telephony hack warms the cockles of our hearts. We’re suckers for anything that recalls the days of rotary dialing and speaking with the operator, after all.