You might remember listening to short wave radio during the Cold War and coming across weird transmissions of metallic voices reciting random groups of numbers through the ether. These are number stations, shortwave radio stations characterised by broadcasts of formatted numbers, which were being sent to spies operating in foreign countries.
Number stations were used widely during the Cold War and we speak with Jo Reggelt of ShortwaveNumbers.com. Jo has been working with Simon Mason who was a founding member of ENIGMA, launched in the 1980’s after identifying several of these stations.
We discuss in detail the operations behind the transmissions and the stations themselves. You will hear some sample transmissions, including one of drunken Stasi officers serenading their agents after the opening of the Wall. [Continue reading…]
“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.
We’ve mentioned “Shortwaveologist” David Goren on the SWLing Postmultiple 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.
Dec 9 (Reuters) – As a scratchy rendition of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No 8 fades into a sea of shortwave radio static, a robotic female voice starts speaking in Korean.
“Number 1913, number 1913, incoming message,” the voice says, before reading out seemingly random sets of numbers.
“68360, 75336, 80861, 94409, 03815,” it continues in an eerily authoritative tone.
The broadcast, a method of sending one-way secret messages to spies, dates back to the French Resistance in World War Two and is still in use on the Korean peninsula, where human intelligence remains the most important way of gathering information.
Blanket electronic surveillance and satellite imagery offer only limited penetration in isolated North Korea, where the use of mobile phones and the Internet is far below global standards. But reliance on antiquated methods and human sources has meant that the National Intelligence Service (NIS), South Korea’s spy agency, has a patchy record on finding out what is going on in nuclear-armed and unpredictable North Korea, with which it is still technically at war.
The agency may have scored a coup last week, however, by informing the world that Jang Song Thaek, the powerful uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, had been removed from his positions.
[…]The radio messages have been used by the South for decades, say sources with knowledge of how the country’s secret agents operate.
“It’s classic – the safest way to deliver messages, it leaves no trace,” said former agent Yeom.
The messages work by sending strings of seemingly random numbers over shortwave radio signals to an agent in the field, armed only with a radio, pen and an easily concealed pad with corresponding letters on it that can be used to decrypt the messages.
“The first time I heard the South Korean numbers station now known as V24 was probably in the early 1980s,” said a radio hobbyist who only identifies himself by his call sign, ‘Token’.
Long-time listeners like Token say V24’s unique power signature and signal strength place its origin somewhere south of the Demilitarized Zone that separates North and South Korea.
An official at the NIS who deals with media requests said he could not confirm anything related to the operation of South Korean numbers stations.
But hobbyists say the secret station is being used less frequently.
“In July 2013, I received 62 messages, most of them in the first half of the month,” said Token, who monitors the signals from his location in the Mojave Desert in the United States. “However, in the first ten days of November, I only received three.
“I have never seen traffic anywhere near this low. This station could be winding down operations,” he added.[…]