By Annie Tomlin
Quick: what's the creepiest thing on the radio?
If you answered Limp Bizkit or Howard Stern, you'd be close but incorrect. Imagine a glockenspiel melody followed by the voice of a little girl calmly announcing numbers. That doesnt seem too unsettling, until you find out that the transmission is not the work of some avant-garde musician, but an encoded messagea message not meant for you, but for a spy.
Such transmissions do exist, and theyre found on shortwave radio on what are called Numbers Stations. Nobody knows exactly where they come from, but they have been on the air for at least thirty years. According to Irdial Records Conet Project web site (http://www.ibmpcug.co.uk/~irdial/), early messages took the form of strange sentences, spoken at the end of news broadcasts. Announcers were sometimes heard saying, "For the benefit of our friends overseas: Peter has painted his fence red. I repeat, Peter has painted his fence red." Number Stations now broadcast strange messages spoken by men, women, and even children. Each station is identified by a short melody, followed by somebody repeating what sounds like random sequences of numbers, letters, or words. But these strings are anything but random. Numbers Stations are believed to be the secret communications of intelligence agencies such as the CIA, MOSSAD, MI6, KGB, and so on.
Whats more, Numbers Stations pose certain puzzling issues. Their broadcasts interfere with essential radio services like air traffic control and shipping, yet no government has taken steps to stop them. With notably few exceptions, the mainstream media has ignored the Numbers Stations. And although the Cold War is over, there have been more transmissions than before, with many new stations popping up throughout the past decade.
This isnt the paranoid speculation of conspiracy theorists; the evidence points to spy communication that makes James Bond look like the wimpy gigolo that he is. For example, a man posing as an art dealer was caught listening toand transcribingthe Numbers Station OLX when the police swooped down on his hideout. He was working for Czech intelligence, infiltrating Jewish groups in the west. Even government officials hint at the nature of these transmissions. An article in Londons Daily Telegraph last year quoted a spokesperson for the Department of Trade and Industry, the U.K. counterpart to the FCC: "These [numbers stations] are what you suppose they are. People shouldnt be mystified by them. They are not for, shall we say, public consumption."
Nonetheless, the public is listening. Numbers Stations can be heard on shortwave radios throughout the globe, 24 hours a day. But its practically impossible to track down the origin of any given transmission. Some of the transmitters have been located by enthusiasts with direction finding equipment (one was traced to Warrenton, Virginiafewer than fifty miles from Washington), but for the most part, transmitter locations are unknown. And thats the main reason that intelligence agencies would transmit messages through Numbers Stations. The messages are encrypted with a system known as a one time pad. In the one time pad, cryptosystem text messages are turned into groups of numbers by adding a specially generated random number to the original message. Only the people that have the pad can decipher the message; otherwise, this encryption method cannot be broken.
That doesnt mean that some people wont try to break the code, though. At http://www.ibmpcug.co.uk/~irdial/crackhome.htm, Numbers Stations enthusiasts can take their best shots at decoding transmissions. Although some people insist that such a feat is impossible, others point out that the National Security Agencys Venona project decoded five such broadcasts. Cracking the code would give insight into who is behind a particular station and its location of origin.
For enthusiasts as well as those without a shortwave radio, British label Irdial Records recently released a collection of Numbers Station transmissions. Titled "The Conet Project: Recordings of Shortwave Numbers Stations," the four-CD set features logs, essays, and over 150 different examples of the eerie broadcasts. With transmissions recorded over the past few decades, its a great place to start.
The Numbers Stations have become a sort of underground phenomenon--a source of fascination for technology buffs, shortwave radio fans, and would-be agents of espionage. Are these transmissions relics of the Cold War, or are they perhaps something more dangerous? We may find out someday, but until then, the mysterious numbers keep flowing through the airwaves, waiting to be consumed by the ear of a spy--or somebody else.
Annie Tomlin recently started yet another web site at www.pencilboxmag.com, and she is consequently groggy all the time.