This Friday I’d like to introduce you to something that isn’t a mystery but is by its very nature mysterious – Number Stations. Have you ever pondered what the world of international spying is like? Do you enjoy glimpses into that world when hearing spies of the past tell their Cold War tales? Would you like to witness a current spying even in operation RIGHT NOW without any danger or consequences? Wouldn’t that be freaky? Well you can with number stations! Just get yourself a radio that picks up short-wave frequencies and you have a front row seat to current spy operations around the world.
First off let me explain what Number Stations are. They are generally regular broadcasts on short-wave frequencies that have a signature sound followed by a synthetic voice, (usually a woman’s or a child’s) reading numbers, letters, or a combination thereof, then the signature sound repeats, the voice repeats the read, and it concludes the broadcast with the signature sound. Some may have signature beeps instead of sounds. Some may give numbers and letters in morse code instead of by voice. Some do not operate on schedules. But the overview holds for MOST. Many have been named by amateur radio enthusiasts by their signature sounds: Nancy Adam Susan, Lincolnshire Poacher (a folk song), Swedish Rhapsody, music box, Gong Station. These were first discovered in WWI and have continued to crop up all over the world. The Conet Project set out to document the known ones and record them. So what are they doing?
They, the unknown broadcasters, are communicating with spies in the field. It’s a brilliant way to get a message to spy without any risk of revealing where the asset is located. All they need is a radio, a one-time pad, and to tune in. There’s no way to trace who is listening with the proper knowledge to decode the message. It’s public airwaves and anyone can tune in but only the right ones can get the message.
So what’s a one-time pad that’s needed for the message? Okay it is a pad with columns and rows of letters and numbers. Each type has its own system of reading like start in the middle, top, bottom, use only every other or every third row, etc. Each page on the pad has an identifier for that unique set. Once that page is used it is destroyed – eaten, burned, flushed, whatever. The spy has their message and hasn’t revealed their location to the one they are spying upon.
How does this work you wonder… okay let’s say I’m a spy. I tune into the music box numbers station. Either by a date or a code read I know what page to use in my one-time pad of decoders. I transcribe the message as read then I use my page like a Little Annie secret decoder ring to get my message. Then I destroy everything – the page and my decoding work with say a code omelet to start off my spy work day. Maybe I tune in and I don’t have the page identifier music box is using that time – well the message isn’t for me and mission, my morning omelet has less pulp fiber that day.
That sounds cool but how do we know this is real and that’s what these stations are doing? We don’t completely know but there are sound clues that this what is going on. First off retired spies tell of doing this with now defunct stations – so we know hey these are still going on must be the same thing. There are hints in court documents of recent spy busts say the 2010 Russian one where the girl took her spy computer to Best Buy to get the malware off it. The court charged “defendants would receive assignments via shortwave radio transmissions.” Similar phrasing has been used in the charging of the Cuban 5 in 2001 and Carlos Alverez in 2009. All these cases were in the US with spies from Russia or Cuba. We know that regime changes causes a shift in numbers stations – like when Ceausescu fell several number stations in Romania went silent but new ones with different signatures and voices came into being.
Several people have gone as far as to trace the source of the broadcasts. The system protects the receivers but broadcasters announce their locations. Some have been traced to US military bases. The Lincolnshire Poacher which uses an English folk song as signature and has a woman or child with a British accent as read was unshockingly traced to an English military base. So the clues point to the whole concept being real and not a hoax. If it is a hoax they have lots of money to open many stations around the world on various military bases.
Recently a new development in the number station game has surfaced in rumors. That some new broadcasts are related to organized crime – drug runners specifically but not conclusively. I’ve not seen any proof this has happened but then again I don’t see why it couldn’t. It is not a crime to open a radio station that only broadcasts for ten minutes a day with garbled number and letters as its message.
Great it’s spies or crime lords but why use this when there’s the dark internet, silk road, and places like that in cyberspace? Well as a retired CIA person questioned in one of the articles I read about number stations said – computers leave tracks. The example we all laughed at was the Russian Spy at Best Buy we mentioned above. A spy computer falls into the wrong (or right depending on your side) hands can be an information gold mine. It can tell you where the spy has been, what they have been looking at, what they have been contacting and so on. An unused one-time pad tells you nothing but a random set of letters and numbers. The spy lets their handler know their pad was compromised it’s dropped and not used – no information lost. So it’s still a clean way to get messages to spies in the field – so what if they know it came from your base?
Curious? You can do a bit of research, get a short wave radio, and listen to a station live by tuning in. Just wondering what spying sounds like? Then give this YouTube Video a listen.