Old people are sneaky. In a scene straight out of a spy movie, an elderly couple reportedly escaped from an assisted living facility using some cunning military expertise—and an antiquated telecommunications method.

     On March 2, 2020, a resident of a secure memory care unit in Elmcroft of Lebanon, a Tennessee nursing facility, “eloped” with his wife from the premises, according to a state report on the incident.

     The man was admitted to Elmcroft with a diagnosis of dementia, while his wife was admitted with Alzheimer’s disease. Basically harmless people, you would imagine, who needed extra care for their mental deterioration. Think again.

     A stranger spotted them, walking two blocks from Elmcroft about 30 minutes after they left and picked them up. (The article in Popular Mechanics doesn’t explain why the stranger picked them up or whether they put up a fight when he tried).

     After the couple returned to Elmcroft, the staff asked them how they pulled off their stunt, since employees must type a numeric code on a keypad to exit the facility. The man said he had previously worked with Morse code in the military, and his ear was trained enough to figure out the code on the pad from the noise it made. He had listened carefully over a period of time, memorized the sounds of each number of the exit code, practiced on the device to make sure he linked the right numbers to the right sounds and, bingo, they were free.

     Experts say that trained observers can deduce what people are typing on a computer keyboard just by listening to the keystrokes. It’s even possible to pick up what two people are saying in a conversation if they’re talking near a bag of potato chips, based on the bag’s vibrations.

     That’s frightening!

     Technically, keypads that still make noise are a throwback to the era of dual-tone, multi-frequency (DTMF) technology. This tech, which made touch-tone phones possible, was once cutting-edge, but now it’s mostly around for the sake of the tradition more than anything else.

     Think of an old phone as its own coding machine. You enter numbers, which the phone encodes and transfers to reach someone else, who is then alerted to the transfer and picks up the phone, establishing a connection. It’s called in-band signaling, because the same line is used for the encoded communication and regular communication.

     Rotary phones encoded their numbers through pulses. The number 1 was one pulse, 2 was two pulses, and so on, all the way up to 9, which had nine pulses. But that could be time-consuming, and in the 1960s, the tech was supplanted by DTMF, which gave each number on the keypad—including the now-omnipresent star (*) and pound (#) keys —its own unique tone. (Remember trying to play “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on the phone keypad?) (I don’t but some of my much older readers might!!)

     However, DTMF also brought its own security concerns. Proto-hackers called “phreakers” used devices called “blue boxes” to mess with the in-band signaling, making prank calls and routing phone calls around the world. (Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, famously assembled such blue boxes from common electronic parts – An early blue box of theirs sold at auction for more than $31,000.)

     While DTMF eventually faded out due to these concerns, there are still instances when touchpad sounds are necessary. Vision-impaired people need them, for example, and automated systems (“Press 1 for…”) use the technology as well.

Thus, the sounds of the touchpad remain, becoming a standard for security systems because they’re convenient. Keypad codes can be short and easy to remember, as well as easy to change, which is what Elmcroft was forced to do after the escape.

     And there’s another advantage to keypads: they’re decidedly low-tech. Unlike more secure biometric measures like facial recognition, keypads don’t need a database of available information, and you can run them in settings without a wireless network.

     A phone today mostly doesn’t use DTMF, but the mapping has remained. There’s sort of a legacy connection. Human beings intuitively remember this and sort of expect it, apparently. The tech is so ingrained that even memory loss can’t take it away.

     So, when you are eventually locked up by your children, or the authorities, as we all will be at some point, you now know how to get out, even if your normal memory is shot. May “Old People are Sneaky” become our motto.

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