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36 15 fast money/scamming on minitel

The home-based Minitel was launched in 1982, in the hope that it would offer France free access to modern communication technologies. Though it has succeeded in doing so to a great degree, the government-subsidized service has also had the effect of providing imperfectly scrupulous entrepreneurs with a convenient way to make fast money.

Last month, François Konigsberg*, general manager of Futura Tel*, a Minitel services hosting and publishing company, was sentenced to a $120,000 fine for fraud and bribery. His crime was born of his skill as a phone hacker. France Tèlécom's points of access to Tèlétel (the network of Minitel services) are geared to disconnect a Minitel user after five minutes of idle time. But Konigsberg found a way to disable the timeout feature on the gaming services he offers. He has also been found guilty of bribing France Tèlécom system administrators at various ministries into connecting their various ministries' Minitels to his gaming services. Since the connections were running constantly, the payoff for Konigsberg's operation was very lucrative.

As it happens, I know François. In 1983, at age fifteen, he was the first person to hack his way into Service Calvados, the online service I'd helped to launch two years earlier. I reacted by giving him a free account and making him a (junior) security consultant of sorts. François was, after all, already part of the trade: he had set up a BBS on his Apple II and had developed an interesting, semigraphical "city" analogy on it, with a city hall to register users, a post office for exchanging mail, cafés in which to hold discussions, etc. This was all somewhat advanced in comparison to Calvados, and it was hard not to be impressed with his resourcefulness and talent. I remember our conversations as to whether or not the skills he and his friends had precociously developed would lead to real jobs in the industry. For François, they certainly did. The surprise (though maybe it shouldn't have been one) was that François' darker side as a professional "cracker" would accompany him as well.

While very few Tèlétel operators resort to illegal practices, it's obvious that many are in it for quick gain. Here are the reasons the system has been such a magnet for shady business practices.

#1: The terminal equipment for Minitel services has been distributed by the national telecom operator to more than 6 million homes.

#2: For a small fee, France Tèlécom will automatically append Minitel charges to the user's telephone bill, and attend to their collection.

#3: The main Tèlétel calling number, 36 15, followed by whatever service name, has been advertised for so many years that it has become second nature to half the population to dial it. It's even passed into the vernacular as a funny expletive, as in "36 15 Get outta here."

#4: Prices of the services -- which France Tèlécom has made mandatory to quote in any ad -- can be expressed on a per-minute basis and thus appear cheap.

Some (though not many) Minitel-based services are very useful. The national electronic phone directory (the original service for which the whole system was developed) is free for the first three minutes of a call. Its effective search and directory options are widely used. Mail order services, train and plane schedules and reservations, along with expensive but effective legislative, financial, and bureaucratic information can all be said to provide a real service.

But of the nearly 20,000 registered services, thousands simply try to come up with the most lucrative mix of wish-fulfilment hype, bare-minimum production costs, and effective user-addiction strategies. More than 200 services offer apartment rental and real estate listings at prices ranging from $0.25 to $1 a minute. These same listings are generally offered by the thousands in weekly papers that cost very little and often carry fresher ads than their Tèlétel competitors. All TV channels have their own Tèlétel service and use it extensively as a profitmaking tool. The ambitious operator's art lies in fine-tuning the service's architecture to maximize the time spent in replying without making it too obvious to the user. Other examples and strategies abound.

Lately, France Tèlécom has been phasing out plans for Minitel improvement in favor of web-based strategy. But it hasn't had much success in attracting its numerous Tèlétel "partners" to this new frontier. Little surprise, when the bird in the hand is so generous with its golden eggs.


shermozle said:

Minitel really is an amazing device. The French government's foresight and laissez-faire attitudes to censorship should set an example for other world governments contemplating new technologies. Because Minitel is ubiquitous, it's still immensely useful. You can book trains, see what's on at the movies, chat--just about everything that you'll be able to do on the Web someday soon. But it's all there now in all it's coloured ASCII glory! Until everything is online and everyone has a terminal, we won't see the amount of usefulness you get from Minitel on the Web.

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"36 15 Get outta here."

The ambitious operator's art lies in fine-tuning the service's architecture to maximize the time spent in replying without making it too obvious to the user.

* As the case described below is still in appeal, the defendant's name and company (as indicated by asterisks) have been changed.

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