Stranger Than Fiction: The Airwaves Are Filled with Coded Spy Messages
03.22.13 by BJSprecher
Thanks to decades of being conditioned by TV shows and movies like those in the Mission: Impossible and James Bond franchises, we often assume that real spy organizations like Britain's MI6, Russia's GRU or our own CIA use only the most advanced technology in their efforts to clandestinely collect, alalyze and disseminate intelligence.
Organizations like these do, in fact, utilize cutting edge computer programs, robots, drones, lasers and satellites, as well as more esoteric devices like microwave-emitting "death rays" and acoustic weapons that fire "sound bullets," but it appears that they're also still using a form of technology that had its heydey back when the first passenger jets were just taking flight and Doo-wop was all the rage. Broadcasting into the airwaves from places unknown are long, sometimes continual, strings of numbers, letters, words and tones that anyone with a shortwave radio can intercept, but which only the spies who hold the code keys for deciphering the messages can comprehend.
The Strange Truth
If you ever find yourself wishing your life was filled with a little more mystery, a little more excitement, save up thirty dollars and go buy a shortwave radio and start scanning the airwaves. With a little luck and a lot of patience, you might come across a band carrying the monotone voice of a man reciting military call letters ("Echo — Kilo — Charlie"), the robotic voice of a woman counting in Russian, or one broadcasting a continual string of beeps, chirps or hums. If you manage to tune in to one of these stations, you could very well be listening in on a coded message intended for a spy.
Once thought to be useless for communications purposes because of their high frequencies and short wavelengths, shortwave radio bands were, it was discovered in the 1920's, ideal for sending messages over extremely long distances. Shortwave signals are broadcast into the sky, where they are reflected or refracted off of the electrically-charged ionosphere layer of the upper atmoshpere and sent back down to Earth as far as a continent away. By the start of the Cold War a few decades later, countless shortwave radio stations were found to be broadcasting strange, seemingly coded, messages using this technique. At the time, these so-called "number stations" (or "numbers stations") were widely believed to be in use by various government intelligence agencies to broadcast secret messages to spies over great distances, but none of the codes — if, indeed, that's what the signals were — were ever cracked and no governments ever officially acknowledged their use.
Number stations remained a mystery and were all but forgotten by the general public until the discovery in the '70s of a station that was broadcasting a powerful signal comprised of the synthesized voice of a British woman speaking a sequence of five numbers. The station came to be known as "The Lincolnshire Poacher" because two bars from the English folk song of that name served as interval signals. The signal from the station was traced back to the Royal Air Force base at Akrotiri, on the island of Cyprus, providing number station enthusiasts with the first "proof" that government organizations like the British Secret Intelligence Service were behind some, if not most, of the number stations.
Public awareness of and interest in number stations increased in 1982, with the discovery of the station UVB-76 (generally referred to now as MDZhB). Typically broadcasting on the frequency 4625, UVB-76 earned the nickname "The Buzzer" among English-speaking radio listeners because it emits a signal comprised of a short buzz tone repeated approximately 25 times per minute, 24 hours per day. The tone of the signal changed a few times in the decades since its discovery, but it was rarely interrupted with what seemed liked possibly coded messages. However, the station finally sprang to life in 2010, when numerous voice messages were transmittted, including 30 minutes of leaked telephone calls in Russian, and the signal stopped abruptly for a 24-hour period before resuming. You can listen to a portion of one of the UVB coded message signals by using the widget below or by following this link).
Why, you ask, would international spy organizations that worship secrecy and have the latest technology at their disposal broadcast top-secret information that anyone can intercept with a thirty-dollar shortwave radio? Two reasons: 1) Number stations are unlicensed and virtually untraceable, meaning signals can be sent and received without fear of the source of the signals being compromised by an enemy. Modern digital communiques, on the other hand, are virtually impossible to expunge completely, leaving delicate information at risk of being hacked. 2) The codes sent by most number stations thought to be legitimate use one-time pads, a type of encryption proven to be impossible to crack because it changes with every message. Of course, that doesn't stop the thousands of number station-hunters around the world from recording the signals in the hopes that they will be able to crack the codes and live out their fantasies as real-life Ethan Hunts and James Bonds.
The Numbers Station (2013)
Numbers stations have turned up in pop culture references before — most notably in the rock band Wilco's fourth studio album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which includes a clip from a number station transmission of a woman reciting the call laters that inspired the name of the album — but they are about to go mainstream with the release of The Numbers Station in theaters this April. Written by newcomer F. Scott Frazier and directed by Danish helmer Kasper Barfoed (The Lost Treasure of the Knights Templar), the movie focuses on a former black ops agent (John Cusack), who gets more than he bargained for when he accepts the job of protecting a code operator (Malin Akerman) at a numbers station run by the CIA.