A decade before the first software hackers of the 1970s, there where groups of underground wiz-kids subverting systems with technology.
The switching technologies that supported the phone systems of the 50s and 60s used pulse frequency technology to route telephone calls around the world. Strings of audible sounds linked together would tell the switches who to connect to who. Quickly ‘phreaks’ started to investigate the phone networks by forcing generated sounds down their phone lines to see what happened. Soon they realised that using home-built electronic equipment allowed them to manipulate the phone networks into performing their own bidding.
At the time the worst damage that could be achieved by phreaking was avoiding the cost of telephone calls, potentially devastating for the phone companies, but unlikely to bring down the fundamentals of society.
Taking inspiration from the Phreakers of the past, there is a new movement using frequencies to do something much more terrifying; hacking directly into peoples brains.
Last year a group of the self-titled ‘Neurophreaks’ demonstrated they could circumvent the security measures built into the Elonchips neurolink technology. By stimulating the physical metal links directly from the chip to the brains neurones, they triggered certain brain functions.
By using certain sounds frequencies, they were able to use induction to generate currents in the brains of subjects. At the time, they could only manage to control the currents for a few nanoseconds. After that time the Elonchips fallback system ran its safe self destruct routine blocking out the Neuropheakers permanently.
However, during this small intrusion subjects experienced strange tingling feelings in their skull, some even reported seeing strange objects, or hearing static noises.
The Neuropheakers then went silent, the world assumed that they had given up, realising that their breakthrough was basically just an elaborate kill switch for the neurolink chips.
But over the last few weeks, there have been rumours of another breakthrough by the Neuropheakers. A much more alarming breakthrough.
Phreak the Planet.
St. Kliment Ohridski, the National Library of Skopje in the Republic of North Macedonia, is an incredibly unremarkable building. It’s also not the place you would expect to find two people who claim to have developed the type of technology only previously held by villains in James Bond movies.
Since joining the European Union North Macedonia’s capital, Skopje, has become an unlikely tech hub. Following the lead of Estonia before, North Macedonia offered digital nomads and would-be startup founders the opportunity to found their companies in the country. They introduced a ‘Digital Residency’ that didn’t require the individual to live in the country.
However, something unusual followed. Unlike Estonia, this new digital residency did require the individual to visit North Macedonia once a year to sign some legal papers and prove their identity. Nearly a million people immediately signed up, but upon visiting the country, enticed by its charm, hospitality and cheap living; they stayed.
What happened next was the opposite of a brain drain, an influx of driven, highly motivated tech workers flooded into Skopje and mixed with the local youth scene. A scene forged from years of fighting for self-identity and self-worth. This mixture was volatile, and it exploded into the quickest growing tech hub in the world.
An unlikely duo.
A few years ago this tech explosion is what enticed the duo I was here to meet to the city.
I mean what’s not to love, the food is fantastic and cheap, I can rent a flat for half the price of Berlin and the tech laws in Macedonia are still yet to catch up with what we’re doing.
Despite assuring me that their work is entirely legal here, they both wish to keep their real identities a secret.
The first to speak has a strong regional British accent that is hard to place. Other than the accent he is as unremarkable as building we sit in. He could be any one of the technology expats that have flooded to the city in the last few years. He is dressed in the ‘Berlin is so passé’ developer uniform of a black t-shirt and black jeans. I suspect that if we were to meet again, I would simply walk by him not remembering our previous meeting.
His partner, a slender, angular looking women who appear to be in her mid-20s is only slightly more memorable due to her jagged cheekbones. In a sharp Eastern European accent, she is quick to correct her partner’s geographic slip-up.
It’s North Macedonia you idiot. You know this!
What follows is a quick history lesson on the name of this country. Fraught in political tensions it’s important to make sure its correct name is used.
The Teal Box.
But we’re not here to talk about this history of North Macedonia’s naming argument with Greece, we’re here to talk about a device that the couple has built. They call it The Teal Box, a nod to the Phreakers of the 60s who would colour code the boxes they use. Red boxes were used to emulate the tone a coin generated when dropped into a phone box. Black boxes used to connect a call at the receiving end, without sending back the signal to the phone company to start charging, making the call free.
The Teal Box hacks the brain of Elonchip users.
The couple claims that their box can interfere with the Elonchips’ using supersonic sounds, similar to the systems used last year to fry the chips. However, this time they say that the Elonchips remain intact and functioning, allowing them to adapt and mutate the signals coming from the chips.
Digital Lysergic Acid Diethylamide
Despite not wanting to share their real-world identities, the duo are famous online with conspiracy theorist and dystopian tech nut jobs as Sinc1putz and Frequentia.
But, unsurprising from their appearance, they both have bog-standard day jobs in two startups in Skopje.
While what we’re doing is entirely legal here they are trying to tighten up the neurohacking laws here. If these news laws were to come into place we wouldn’t want that to impact our everyday lives, so we’re trying to keep those two things entirely separate.
We have met in the library as a safe, neutral place, giving us all the opportunity to scope each other out. Once I had convinced them I would keep their identities a secret and they had convinced me they weren’t going to kidnap me we moved on to their ‘lab’.
I’m not sure what I was expecting, but Sinc1putz and Frequentia’s lab is as uninspiring as the library that we initially met in. Potentially influenced by 90s movies, I was expecting a hodge-podge of oscilloscopes, screens and soldering irons. In reality, it’s repurposed bedroom in their modest two-bedroom apartment.
In one corner it’s your standard ‘spare room’ affair, sofa-bed, winter clothes storage, and some filling boxes. The other side of the room is a little more interesting, a work station is set up with a desktop computer with a small teal plastic box connected to it.
“That’s it” proclaims Frequentia, pointing at the box.
That’s the potentially terrifying future where you’re unable to understand if you’re thoughts are real. And if you can identify the fake images and sounds beamed direct to your brain, you’ll have no idea who put them there.
In The Name of Science
As a tech reporter, I had an early version of the Elonchip installed in the first year of its release. But after the privacy concerns shortly after I have had it disabled since then.
In the ‘name of science,’ I’ve had the chip temporarily re-enabled so that I can be connected to the Teal Box. Apparently, I will experience what is claimed to be audio and visual hallucinations generated by the Teal Box.
Sinc1putz starts to fire up the workstation his fingers frantically tapping their way through the manual initialisation process for the Teal Box.
While the technology booted up, Frequentia briefed me on what was about to happen.
As the box uses audio frequencies we don’t have to connect any wires to you, but you do need to be in very close proximity to the chest. If things get too much, just take a step away, and it will stop.
Frequentia then goes on to explain what I will experience. She covers the fact that what I will experience will seem very basic, I will see a small pulsating white blob in the centre of my vision and hear an audio recording of a voice counting random numbers.
Terrifyingly, it Works.
Sinc1putz pushed a button on his mechanical keyboard. Immediately I felt a strange tingling in my head, and just as promised a peculiar white blob materialises in the centre of my vision. But I couldn’t hear the audio that was expected.
After some frantic reconfiguration we start the teal box up again, this time it’s there. I can clearly hear the sounds of a voice counting out random numbers.
The odd thing about it is that as this narrowcasted direct into my brain is bypassing the Elonchips complex audio processing. I’m entirely unable to discern a source of the sound, it feels like the sound originates from inside my head as well as every other location at the room at the same time. It’s overwhelming and disorienting. I feel like I’m about to pass out, so I step away from the box, and everything immediately stops.
Basic, but effective
Sinc1putz explains that the genuine audio notifications of the Elonchip go though a complicated spacial audio emulation to make it feel like the sounds are coming in through your ears. This allows the brain to cope. The teal box bypasses the chip entirely, so they don’t have access to that advanced processing.
The duo then explains that they do not intend to develop the Teal Box any further.
We’re doing this for awareness, not for gain. We hope that with a few targeted demonstrations of this box will either help people develop protections against this, or remove their chips entirely.
They go on to calmly express their concerns that this technology could be easily manipulated for all sorts of nefarious intents.
It’s not hard to imagine a world full of Teal Boxes being used for piping unfiltered content direct into in-expecting individuals conciseness. Advertising, brain spam if you will, seems the least terrifying use of this technology.
Military and political usages also seem possible, influencing the outcome of democracy and corrupting the thoughts of a populace could be a terrifying use for the box.
As I say goodbye to Sinc1putz, Frequentia, and Skopje, I genuinely hope that awareness remains the limit of their ambitions and that the Teal Box never falls into the wrong hands.