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
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.”
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.
Thanks to Andrea Borgnino for sharing this article:
(Source: Der Spiegel)
A pair of Russian agents was convicted on Tuesday of spying in Germany for more than 20 years. Russian President Vladimir Putin is personally conducting the negotiations for a potential exchange, but now a new case is straining German-Russian relations.
A treasure in the exhibit room at the German Federal Criminal Police Office in the western city of Wiesbaden has aroused a great deal of curiosity among the world’s intelligence agencies. It looks like an ordinary, black laptop bag. It contains a Siemens hard drive, or at least it looks that way. But a notch reveals that it is not an off-the-shelf product. It’s a high-frequency satellite transmitter, with an antenna hidden in the flap of the bag.
The device is state-of-the-art military technology, a “top quality intelligence product,” raves an expert. In the spy wars, German authorities haven’t gotten their hands on anything this important in years. The significance of this high-tech device, however, approaches that of the legendary Enigma code machine from World War II. Domestic intelligence officials at the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) in Cologne are eager to examine the device. The American intelligence agencies, the CIA and the NSA, as well as Israel’s Mossad have also asked for permission to inspect the miraculous piece of equipment.
The satellite device served Andreas and Heidrun Anschlag as a connection back home. They were Russian spies who lived as agents in Germany for more than 20 years, until they were arrested in October 2011.
[…]In their dispatches, which the couple received with a shortwave radio, the agent controllers in Directorate S of the SWR referred to the Anschlags as “Pit” and “Tina.” They were given the state-of-the-art satellite equipment during a trip to St. Petersburg and Moscow. They also attended a course on the use of a decoding program called “Sepal” and an encoding program called “Parabola.”
This enabled “Pit” and “Tina” to establish a secure connection to Moscow. All they had to do was pay attention to the times when one of the six to eight satellites sent into space by Russian intelligence for spying activities came into range. A red light on their radio device signaled to the Anschlags that the satellite was approaching, while a blue light indicated the transmission of encoded messages.
Sometimes, when the equipment failed, the Anschlags placed the transmitter below one of their attic windows, among the fruit trees in the garden or on a nearby hill. The hills directly behind the house proved to be unsuitable, because nearby wind turbines apparently interrupted communication with the satellite.[…]
We first mentioned The Numbers Station back in late 2011 –and admittedly, I was eager to see public attention drawn to this public-yet-covert shortwave communications medium that’s still in existence today. Indeed, it’s no wonder that a numbers station became the subject of a film; the subject is truly mysterious. Only a few days ago, while describing numbers stations to a visiting friend who had never heard of them, I played a recording of a numbers station that I made last year–her initial response upon hearing the recording was, in her words, that she experienced “chills” running up her spine.
But what is a numbers station?
Numbers stations, for those of you not familiar with them, are shortwave radio broadcasts that contain only strings of what seem to be random numbers. In truth, these numbers are encrypted messages for operatives in the field (otherwise known as secret agents). The operatives tune in the station with a simple shortwave radio, then decode the message with a one-time decryption key. Once the message has been deciphered, the message pads are immediately burnt or destroyed (or, at least, they’re meant to be…). Oddly, even though this is a very public communication which anyone with a shortwave radio can hear, only one or two individuals will likely ever decode the message. Such messages have been known to exist in a variety of languages at least since the time of the Cold War, but strangely did not conclude with the Cold War’s supposed end–they are ongoing even today. (Click here to check out our other numbers station posts.)
In the movie The Numbers Station, John Cusack’s character, Emerson, is a seasoned field operative–a “black-ops” agent–who faces a life-changing dilemma in the field which places his career in jeopardy. In an attempt to give Emerson some time to reconcile his emotions, his leader (Liam Cunningham) assigns him to what should be a simple, routine assignment: to protect Catherine (Malin Akerman), a cryptologist who broadcasts at a rural remote numbers station in the UK.
Things go terribly wrong when the station is compromised and Cusack finds himself again facing the same dilemma that sent him to this assignment in the first place: whether to “retire” his asset (namely, Catherine) in order to fulfill his duty, by cutting off loose ends? Or will his conscience–and tenuous friendship with Catherine–take him in another direction? It’s a difficult ethical dilemma, one Emerson has been attempting to avoid.
I’ve seen a number of John Cusack films over the years, and while he’s an extraordinary talent, The Numbers Station unfortunately doesn’t quite allow us to see his full range as an actor simply because his character, Emerson, is stoic and quite introspective. But the chemistry between Emerson and Catherine is complex and tense, and one can’t help but believe he cares deeply for her.
On the action front, The Numbers Station is a much greater success: pacing is good, with a few moments to collect your breath; still, there’s always looming conflict. The bulk of the film is set in a dimly lit, underground bunker-come-numbers station, and there are actually very few shoot-’em-out scenes, yet the tension and suspense are constant.
I won’t comment on how the plot resolves, but I can say that if you like dark films with tension, moral decisions, action, and intrigue, this is well worth watching. I enjoyed it.
Moreover, if you love shortwave radio, and are intrigued by numbers stations, you will be pleased to discover that this film treats the concept with due respect and more accuracy than I would have anticipated.
How accurate is The Numbers Station?
While those who write about numbers stations have presumably never worked for one, there’s an existing body of knowledge out there built on thousands of hours of listening, cataloging stations and even court documents from cases involving spies. This gives us a fairly accurate idea of the true nature of numbers stations.
- Though it is possible, I have never heard of a numbers station which has a live voice behind the microphone, reading numbers; these would most likely be advance-recorded or computer generated.
- In the film, Malin Akerman’s character, Catherine, only seems to read a string of numbers for a matter of seconds, not minutes; in reality, this would take much more time.
- I heard no preamble of numbers to ID the correct decipher key.
And yet…likely accuracies
- In the film, under standard operating conditions, no one at the station knows the nature of the messages being broadcast–this reflects a probable fact about such stations.
- The numbers station is located in a rural and remote part of the UK, a convincing setting for a numbers station (though some may broadcast from major broadcasting sites).
- Once the station has been compromised, Cusack’s character explains in some detail how numbers stations work on the operative’s end; this description is very true to what is known or believed of actual numbers stations.
So, should you see it?
I anticipate that most any shortwave radio enthusiast will enjoy The Numbers Station. As a non-movie-reviewer–in other words, as a regular joe public movie-goer–I give it 8 stars out of 10. Go ahead!
If you’ve seen The Numbers Station, please comment below.
Videos: The Numbers Station Trailer and Featurettes
The official trailer:
Video Clip 1: The Assignment
Video Clip 2: We need that cypher