One thing has stayed with the James Bond movie franchise through the decades: Mr. Bond always has the most wonderful of gadgets. Be it handheld, car-based, or otherwise, there’s always something to thrill that is mostly believable.
The biggest problem with all of those gadgets is that they mark Commander Bond as an obvious spy. “So Mr. Bond, I see you have a book with many random five character groups. Nothing suspicious about that at all!” And we all know that import/export specialists often carry exploding cufflinks or briefcases full of unknown electronics in hidden compartments.
Just as steganography hides data in plain sight, the best spy gadgets are the ones that don’t seem to be a spy gadget. It is no wonder some old weapons are little more than sticks or farm implements. You can tell a peasant he can’t have a sword, but it is hard to ban sticks.
Imagine you were a cold war era spy living in a hostile country with a cover job with Universal Exports. Would you rather get caught with a sophisticated encryption machine or an ordinary consumer radio? I’m guessing you went with the radio. You aren’t the only one. That was one of the presumed purposes to the mysterious shortwave broadcasts known as number stations. These were very common during the cold war, but there are still a few of them operating.
Photographer, Lewis Bush, is seeking ham radio stations and shortwave listening posts in the London, England area. Lewis writes to the SWLing Post:
I’m working on a project which involves trying to locate and map possible broadcast sites for numbers stations (confirmed, suspected, and some highly unlikely) for an eventual book on the subject. These satellite maps (22 in total) are going to be displayed alongside spectrograms of an assortment of shortwave broadcasts and noise, but the final element of the project which I’d really like to include are photographs of ham shacks and shortwave radios themselves.
These photographs would be without people in them and could be as anonymised as the owners like. It’s also not important to me whether the owners are themselves interested in numbers stations. The main thing I’m interested in is really the equipment and the spaces that people listen from.
You can read a little more about the project and see some sample images here: http://www.lewisbush.com/category/numbers-in-the-dark/
If you’re willing to help Lewis, please contact him via email: email@example.com
Many thanks to SWLing Post reader, Anthony, for forwarding this CBS/60 Minutes video: an interview with former KGB spy, Jack Barsky. During the interview, Barsky mentions that he received encrypted KGB “radiograms” via a numbers station he believed to be in Cuba. He admitted that the messages could take an hour to copy, then an additional three hours to decode. This is a fascinating story–well worth watching.
Here is the intro via 60 Minutes:
“Tonight, we’re going to tell you a story you’ve probably never heard before because only a few people outside the FBI know anything about it. It’s a spy story unlike any other and if you think your life is complicated, wait till you hear about Jack Barsky’s, who led three of them simultaneously. One as a husband and father, two as a computer programmer and administrator at some top American corporations and three as a KGB agent spying on America during the last decade of the Cold War.
The FBI did finally apprehend him in Pennsylvania but it was long after the Soviet Union had crumbled. What makes Jack Barsky’s story even more remarkable is he’s never spent a night in jail, the Russians declared him dead a long time ago, he’s living a quiet life in upstate New York and has worked in important and sensitive jobs. He’s now free to tell his story…as honestly as a former spy ever can.”
Click here to view the video via CBS online, or you can simply watch via the the embedded players below:
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.
Several 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).
Many 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.”