Numbers Stations: A bad day to be a Cuban spy

SWLingPost-Spy-Numbers-Station

While band scanning last Sunday (September 8, 2014) I stumbled upon the Cuban numbers station HM01 on 11,530 kHz at 17:30 UTC.

It’s always intriguing to hear shortwave numbers stations, but I prefer those that stick to pure vocal number strings; HM01 has numbers with digital bursts between number sets, which is a more fatiguing listening experience.  Nonetheless, I kept it playing in the background as I tooled around the radio room Sunday afternoon, putting away supplies from my recent three week road trip.

WFL_015Several times during the HM01 broadcast, I heard the audio (not the AM carrier) drop in the middle of numbers sets and digital bursts. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard hiccups on HM01 (see this post from last year, for example), so I wasn’t terribly surprised. Then, close to the top of the hour, HM01 audio dropped for a minute or so, then switched back to five-number sets with no digital bursts between; though I wasn’t copying the message, I suspected that someone in the studio intentionally, perhaps in frustration–or else accidentally–started the broadcast from the beginning again.

At this point, I started recording. The five-number sets continue for about a minute, then the carrier unexpectedly drops:

Since it was near the top of the hour, and HM01 broadcasts only tend to last one hour, I didn’t expect to hear the broadcast repeat–and it didn’t, at least on 11,530.

Via a little band scanning, I discovered that HM01 had unexpectedly migrated 105 kHz higher, to 11,635 kHz. This broadcast audio also begins a little awkwardly. You’ll hear the audio drop; I scan for a few seconds,  then return to 11,635, and HM01 comes back. And this time, the numbers set sounds cleaner, with fewer problems. Here’s the recording:

I couldn’t help but chuckle over this…

Evidently, this message had some important content–otherwise they wouldn’t have re-broadcast the entire set the following hour, 105 kHz up from the original frequency (most likely protocol after technical difficulties). I imagine spies huddled around their radios, cursing at the interruptions and frustrated they had to listen for an additional hour; and I imagine the confusion at the broadcast site as they tried to diagnose the problem in a live broadcast. It’s during these little mistakes that numbers stations inadvertently tell us who they are (Radio Havana Cuba content has accidentally been played before on Cuban numbers stations).

Numbers stations featured in Highbrow Magazine

towersMany thanks to SWLing Post reader, Richard Cuff, who shares this link to a numbers station piece in Highbrow Magazine; one of the more comprehensive numbers station articles I’ve read in a while.

Here’s an excerpt:

“Many nights, Spooks turn on their shortwave radios and drift through the frequencies. On any given night, one can hear amateur radio stations broadcasting church sermons, utility traffic for aircrafts – with the right equipment, you can hear/contact the International Space Station. Yet one of the most eerie, mysterious uses of shortwave is that of the numbers stations: stations that feature ominous – sometimes robotic – voices saying seemingly random number patterns.

Shortwave radio boomed in the 1920s: For decades, it was the only way to receive transmissions from far way. Numbers stations, as they are called now, have been around since World War I, though many of the most famous transmissions took place during the Cold War. These mysterious stations are all, to date, unlicensed. Some feature automated voices, others have what sound like children’s voices, another with a sultry woman announcing numbers. One station – a Moscow-based broadcast during a Communist party coup – featured only the number five repeated for hours.

Numbers stations and use of shortwave have declined after the Cold War, but there are still transmissions heard every day – the shortwave decline has not been as pronounced as one would expect. Part of the reason for this is that it is a secure means of one-way communication. Since the airwaves are being released out into the ether – the intended recipient is completely untrackable. Presumably, spies would carry a one-time pad, which would have the encryption code to be used (ideally) for just one broadcast (hence one-time). This makes decryption from pedestrians and enemies nearly impossible unless that one-time pad is misused or corrupted.

Almost all of the information we have on these numbers stations is due to hobbyists listening, sourcing, and sometimes attempting to decode the stations with their own radios. The communities of hobbyists are vast – and their logging can be prolific. There is the Spooks Spy Numbers Station Mailing List, the Conet Project (which compiles recordings of shortwave), the Spy Numbers Station Database, and many others. They keep track of the frequency, the time, the numbers, and sometimes record audio each time spooks hear a Numbers broadcast. These shortwave enthusiasts sometimes spend hours trying to locate the source of these broadcasts – sometimes, to no avail.”

Continue reading “Numbers Stations, Shortwave Radio, and Their Role in the Intelligence Community”…

Cold War Echo: RT investigates UVB-76

UVB-76-via-RT(Source: Russia Today via YouTube)

“From a lonely rusted tower in a forest north of Moscow, a mysterious shortwave radio station transmitted day and night. For at least the decade leading up to 1992, it broadcast almost nothing but beeps; after that, it switched to buzzes, generally between 21 and 34 per minute, each lasting roughly a second—a nasally foghorn blaring through a crackly ether.

The signal was said to emanate from the grounds of a voyenni gorodok (mini military city) near the village of Povarovo, and very rarely, perhaps once every few weeks, the monotony was broken by a male voice reciting brief sequences of numbers and words, often strings of Russian names: “Anna, Nikolai, Ivan, Tatyana, Roman.” But the balance of the airtime was filled by a steady, almost maddening, series of inexplicable tones.”

Click here to watch the video on YouTube, or view via the embedded player below:

If you can’t hear UVB-76 from where you live via shortwave radio (4,625 kHz), you can always listen to this live stream.

Numbers station presentation by Peter Staal

Many thanks to Jonathan Marks who discovered the following video–a lecture by Peter Staal at TU Delft–on the topic of numbers stations:

Note that they attempt to sort out a technical problem in the first three minutes of the lecture.

Check out Jonathan’s post on Critical Distance for his comments and videos of Speech Morse Generators: the machines behind the numbers.

Numbers Stations in the news

towersThere have been a lot of numbers in the news lately.

Earlier this week, David Goren’s numbers station radio documentary was featured on the ABC Radio National show, Sounds Like Radio.

Click here to listen.

This morning, I also noticed this excellent BBC News Magazine piece on numbers stations, which includes an interview with Akin Fernandez, the creator of the Conet Project.

Here’s an excerpt from The spooky world of the ‘numbers stations’:

“This is the era of hyper-tech espionage, encrypted emails and mindboggling cryptography. But you can hear a very old-fashioned form of espionage on shortwave radio.

It is 13:03 on a Tuesday in a little crammed room of the BBC Monitoring building in Caversham and what is suddenly heard on a shortwave receiving station is a 10-minute message in Morse code.

There is a small community of aficionados who believe messages like this are a throwback to the era of Cold War espionage. They are the mysterious “numbers stations”.

At the apex of the Cold War, radio lovers across the globe started to notice bizarre broadcasts on the airwaves. Starting with a weird melody or the sound of several beeps, these transmissions might be followed by the unnerving sound of a strange woman’s voice counting in German or the creepy voice of a child reciting letters in English.

[…]Times have changed and technology has evolved, but there’s evidence that this old-fashioned seeming method of communication might still be used. Shortwave numbers stations might seem low-tech but they probably remain the best option for transmitting information to agents in the field, some espionage experts suggest.

“Nobody has found a more convenient and expedient way of communicating with an agent,” says Rupert Allason, an author specialising in espionage issues and writing under the pen name Nigel West.

“Their sole purpose is for intelligence agencies to communicate with their agents in denied areas – a territory where it is difficult to use a consensual form of communications,” Allason says.

A former GCHQ officer, who does not wish to be named, whose duty was to intercept signals towards the UK and search for these numbers stations in the 1980s is also adamant that these were broadcasts to agents in the field or in residencies or directed to embassies.

It was “one-way traffic” – the transmitters broadcast numbers to the recipient. The recipient did not reply.”

[…]”This system is completely secure because the messages can’t be tracked, the recipient could be anywhere,” says Akin Fernandez, the creator of the Conet Project – a comprehensive archive of the phenomenon of numbers stations. “It is easy. You just send the spies to a country and get them to buy a radio. They know where to tune and when,” he says.

Continue reading on the BBC Magazine website…

If you would like to know more about numbers stations, click here to read other numbers posts.

Click here to go to David’s website, Shortwaveology.net.

Miami Herald: Cuban spies and shortwave numbers

towersI should note that we have several recordings and frequencies for the numbers station HM01, which is mentioned in this article. Very happy to see that they interviewed Chris Smolinski:

(Source: Miami Herald)

Even if you’re not a Cuban spy, you too can receive secret messages sent by Havana to its spooks in Miami, Washington and around the world.

Every week, one short wave radio station in Cuba broadcasts 97 messages coded in fax-like tones. A computer program easily available to the public changes the tones into numbers, and the Cuban spies then decode the numbers into words.

A second Cuban spy station transmits 16 messages per week in the dots and dashes of the 175-year-old Morse code – secret messages to Havana spies who may be older or less technologically savvy.

[…]The busiest Cuban station these days, and the only spy station in the world that uses the fax-like tones, has been baptized as HM01 by amateur eavesdroppers who run Web pages like Spooks List, Spynumbers, ShortwaveSchedule and Enigma2000.

It transmits 11 to 14 messages per day, a total of 96 per week, on the same schedule each week but using a dozen different short wave frequencies, said Chris Smolinski, 41, a Maryland software engineer who monitors the spy stations as a hobby.

Each message almost always has 150 five-digit groups, so that eavesdroppers cannot measure the true length of the text. And some of the 10-minute transmissions are phonies, designed to mask the real number of spies receiving them.

Anyone can hook up a radio receiver to a computer, where the DIGTRX program – widely used by ham radio aficionados to send and receive lengthy texts, turns the tones into numbers. Spies then use secret computer programs to turn numbers into text.

“HM01 is an ideal system because you don’t have to teach any to anybody. The computer does all the work,” said Smolinski.

For the less computer-savvy spooks there’s the M08a station, which broadcasts 16 messages in Morse code, developed for the telegraph in 1836, on a set weekly schedule and on many of the same frequencies as Hm01.

Read the full article on The Miami Herald website…

David Goren’s numbers station piece featured on 99% Invisible

99invisible-logo-itunes-badgeWe’ve mentioned “Shortwaveologist” David Goren on the SWLing Post multiple times. David is a talented radio producer who also happens to be a life-long avid shortwave radio listener.

One of David’s productions, Atencion! Seis Siete Tres Siete Cero: The Mystery of the Shortwave Numbers Stations, first aired in 2000 as part of the NPR series Lost and Found Sound. It’s a richly layered soundscape, a sonic journey woven together by David’s narration and a series of interviews in a form of personal documentary–and it’s simply inspired.  This piece caught the attention of Roman Mars, producer of my all-time favorite podcast, 99% Invisible. I’m pleased and proud to report that 99% Invisible‘s latest podcast features this brilliant numbers station piece of David’s.

For those of you who don’t know, 99% Invisible now has, deservedly, one of the largest listenerships in the podcasting world. A version of their show is also produced and aired over NPR. This piece will give shortwave radio significant exposure, and in turn make it a little less…well, invisible.

Intrigued?  Join us–and begin by listening to David’s feature.  Either subscribe to 99% Invisible via your favorite podcasting software, download the show as an mp3, or simply listen on 99% Invisible‘s website by clicking here.

ShortwaveologyLogoBe sure to check out David Goren’s updated website Shortwaveology.net which has an array of his own audio productions as well as a sound clips and a listener’s (b)log.  It’s terrific.

PS–If you would like to meet David in person, plan to attend his annual listening event: the Shortwave Shindig at the Winter SWL Festival in Pennsylvania (you have registered for the annual SWL Fest, right?).

David, we look forward to any and all of your future work (rumor has it that he’s working on Shortwaveology #3)…Stay tuned!