Fantastic Beasts of The Shortwave Spy Band and Where to Find Them
Out into the wilds
Welcome to the mysterious world of clandestine radio transmissions.
If you ever venture out into the wilds and listen in on shortwave (SW) transmissions, you could possibly stumble upon one of many numbers station, amongst other strange artefacts, while twisting that dial. One thing for sure, you will stumble back out of this experience very perplexed and most probably downright creeped out.
Numbers station are shortwave stations that are surmised to be transmitting a code to spies embedded in other countries or foreign embassies. Due to the nature of shortwave transmissions, these messages can almost immediately be picked up the world over as it takes a SW transmission about 137 milliseconds to circle the globe. They are one-way transmissions, meaning that no one ever replies to them.
Although secret stations were first heard transmitting Morse code during WWI, and years later news bulletins and coded transmissions out of BBC's “Radio Londres” forced the Nazis to scramble radio communications in continental Europe during WWII, they seem to have evolved to find their present form on the SW band during the Cold War. SW aficionados have given numbers stations colourful names like The Swedish Rhapsody, The Buzzer or The Gong Station. A good example of a numbers station is The Lincolnshire Poacher.
Listen : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QnXPqUU6fI0
(Breakdown: that little tune is repeated 11 times as a sign-in, then a first 5 number sequence is repeated 10 times. After a couple of electronic tones follows the main course: 11 different 5 number sequences, each repeated only 2 times. More tones follow and then the little tune is again heard as a sign-off.)
This particular numbers station is thought to be operated by the British government and is broadcasting from an RAF base on Cyprus.
If all the numbers are pronounced in exactly the same way, then that's because the voice is synthesized and played back in whatever order is chosen, giving them their eerie quality. It's a system used by almost all numbers station we heard and in various languages.
Numbers stations seem to be the most favoured means of clandestine radio transmission.
The Cuban Five was the name given to five Cuban spies caught spying in the USA. They used the Atención Numbers Station to receive directions from Cuba. They were sentenced then released a few years later, mostly through a prisoners exchange.
The Cuban 5
Also known as the Miami five.
Another Cuban spy, Ana Belén Montes, who worked at the DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency) and had brothers and her husband in espionage or counterespionage, used the same numbers station. She was also caught, plead guilty, and is predicted to be released in 2027.
But, though unique and mystifying, those aren't the only strange beasts haunting the high frequency radio wave spectrum.
Numbers Stations are somewhat different from Letter Beacons. Those stations forever transmit only one letter in Morse code. Although some have a legitimate purpose in radio navigation, most have an unknown purpose and are presumed to come from Russia, as some of them are transmitting letters that exist only in the Cyrillic Morse code alphabet. They also have been used for radio jamming. One theory is that they are part of the Russian dead man's switch system, whereby if one station stops transmitting constantly it is presumed to have been hit by an enemy nuclear strike and immediately launches a like response.
This writer theorizes that some “accidental” bursts of static heard on some numbers stations or elsewhere may contain burst transmissions : electronically condensed encoded secret messages that sound just like ordinary static bursts. It remains to be seen, however, if a burst transmission can survive all that real-world shortwave static.
Oddly enough, British and South African TV once used burst transmission as a civilian application, called in this case 'data bursts'. They transmitted written documents that viewers could videotape. Then, using the pause button on their VCRs, they could read them at their leisure afterwards.
AKA The Buzzer
This is the station that's also known as The Buzzer.
This station is all over the place compared to the strict form maintained by others like it. It broadcasts the same rhythmic electronic buzz seemingly forever and ever, day and night... except when it doesn't. Then, all of a sudden, a human voice recites numbers and words, mostly in the form of names. It goes dormant, then goes crazy, and once it did its crazy dance for a whole day.
But errors can happen, and they happened because it is thought that the tones emitted by The Buzzer are broadcast from a device placed in front of a microphone instead of through purely internal electronic means. So, sometimes, people can be heard in the background having conversations or talking on the phone. Here is a sampling :
“Не получаю генератор... ...идёт такая работа от аппаратной”,
Which translates as “I do not get a generator ... ... this kind of work comes from the hardware.”
Also, this tantalizing tidbit :
“Офицер дежурного узла связи "Дебют", прапорщик Успенская. Получила контрольный звонок от Надежды... ...поняла”
Which translates as “Officer of the duty communication center "Debut", Ensign Uspenskaya. Received a control call from Hope ... ... I understood.”
Errors like this, if they really are errors, could lead to a breakthrough like the one at Bletchley Park, when Turing and the British codebreakers hypothesized that the Nazi high command might routinely end all their messages with the sign off: “Heil Hitler”.
That was one of the things that the codebreakers' machine, the Bombe, was designed to explore. That sign off gave them eleven decoded symbols they could work with right off the bat.
God, we love this stuff!
Relevance of numbers stations et als
Are numbers stations and their beastly cousins still relevant or useful today, more than one hundred years after the SW band became a tool of covert communications? There is a strong case to be made for the affirmative. When used in conjunction with information-theoretically secure cryptosystems such as One Time Pads, as they probably always are, they represent a foolproof way to communicate instructions to clandestine operators or embassies in enemy countries. Even the most powerful computers using brute force decoding cannot decipher messages encrypted with one time pads.
But what about if they were not relevant anymore because of some advanced technical innovation? Why then keep them transmitting every day? A computer program could randomize those numbers and operate many of those stations with almost no human oversight, and contain no meaning whatsoever.
One answer to this could be that only one out of every 'x' messages is valid, but impossible to differentiate from the rest, that are just chaff. The valid message could be broadcast at a set time or according to some secret prearranged schedule.
If those messages are meaningless, it may also very well be that those stations could just represent a rock-bottom cheap way to make the NSA, GCHQ and the folks at Pine Gap (and other outfits too secret to mention) spend hundreds of thousands of dollars a year (plus benefits) paying SIGINT experts whose duty it is to listen in on those stations, record and classify them, and try to decipher their messages.
Or... the opposing powers could also have elaborated dedicated computer programs that does this job for them. One computer emitting mostly bogus messages to its opposite number, and this other computer on the receiving end trying to compute some sense out of all that.
If ever given the gift of self-awareness, those battling computers could even one day say, in the immortal words of Pogo: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
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