Monday, June 3, 2013

Mystery Voices in the Air

Growing up, one of my most favorite things to do was to play with my father's shortwave radio. Often times, I'd hear really strange sounds coming from the radio - very weird transmissions. Morse code, weird music, and the voices. The voices spooked me out the most. Sometimes it was male, more often female. Several times, I swear it was a child's voice.

The voice would often just drone on and on, saying a series of numbers over and over again. Then the whole transmission would repeat itself.

For years, I would just listen to the voices saying their numbers - wondering what the hell it all meant. Who was sending this message? And more interestingly, who was receiving them? Eventually, the shortwave radio wasn't as interesting to me, and I forgot all about it.

Until I started doing some research...

The phenomona of strange transmission via shortwave frequences is called Number Stations. These mysterious transmissions are heard all over the world, and the voices are in a mulitutde of languages. The voices are most often a woman, but can also be male, a child, or mechanically generated. Sometimes the transmission will begin with a little music, or the word "attention" can be heard. Then the voice will be reading a series of numbers, letters, or phonetic alphabet (i.e. "Charlie" for the letter "C"). The transmissions will normally follow a very tight schedule, and each might last hours.

So what exactly are these Number Stations???

The most popular theory is that it's a method for undercover spies to get their orders. To transmit messages via shortwaves is not that difficult, but more importantly, it's cheap and simple for your undercover spy. You can get a shortwave radio from Wal-Mart for $20.

Why use shortwave signals? Why not use cell phones or the internet? With the advent of technology, it's become even easier to intercept messages from a phone or a computer. With shortwave signals, the messages are often coded orders.

If the spy is using a one-time pad to decrypt these numbers, the code is unbreakable. The numbers or letters being broadcast from Toronto to Bejing are easy to listen to, but they're meaningless unless you have the "key" to decoding them and receiving your messages. (Russian spy book of one-time pads pictured left).The spy decodes the numbers into letters, back into numbers, and then into letters once more to get the message. He then burns the one page key. It's random, it's encrypted, and it's impossible for anyone to break.

The world's governments will not admit to using Number Stations, although recently, the US government accused Cuba of having a spy on American soil. The "Atencion" number station was believed to be the method by which Cuba's spies would receive their orders. Ana Belen Montes was accused by the CIA of being a Cuban spy when her laptop was recovered, and the "key" to decrypting those shortwave messages was found.

Below is a real sample of the famous "Atencion Number Station."

One of the most famous Number Stations is the "Lincolnshire Poacher." It begins with the English folksong, and then goes into it's coded voice message. The voice is female, and you'll notice that at the end of a series of numbers, she will raise her voice on that fifth and final number. This transmission is believed to be from the British Secret Intelligence Service being sent from the island of Cyprus. Listen for yourself right below. James Bond indeed!

One Number Station I find a little creepy is one called "Swedish Rhapsody." It begins with a few beeps, and then this little Swedish song would play as if from a music box.  Then this freaky kid's voice starts saying numbers in what I think is German. It even says "achtung" between five number sets. I've read this Number Station is still quite active, and for those with shortwave radios, you can here it on three frequencies simultaneously at: 4779, 5340, and 6779 on Saturday evenings.

What orders are being given out in this clandestine method? Meeting places for undercover spies? Call to arms for terrorist sleeper cells? Or perhaps orders to assassinate someone is a message being sent over the airwaves.

The funny thing is, one would think since the end of the Cold War, these kinds of secret transmissions would've at least slowed down. But the contrary is true, as Number Stations enthusiasts have noted that it's picked up since 1990.

Exactly what are these mystery voices in the air saying?

The mystery continues...

For more Number Station recordings, go to The Conet Project by Iridial to listen to more.
Or, get a shortwave radio and just start listening.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I've never heard of Number Stations before. Since the Internet and phones can be traced, makes sense why spies would use it.
This is comment take two - tried to comment the first time, but you took down the post before I hit the button. Almost made it!

Pat Dilloway said...

I guess sometimes low-tech is the best way to do things. If it is spies the Swedish one is disconcerting because who are the Swedes spying on? I thought they were like Switzerland in usually being neutral as far as global conflicts go.

Samuel Bledsoe said...

So wild. What is the official word on what these stations are used for? Now I want to do my own research on these stations.

Gina Gao said...

I've never come across one of those Number Stations before. But I've heard of those "undercover spy" theories.

Michael Offutt, "Johnny on the Spot" said...

Incredibly fascinating article. I could be working with a spy for all I know. However, in this day and age, it seems more efficient for governments to employ uber hackers than actual spies. Shit, just last week someone hacked a computer in the U.S. and got away with a lot of information on super secret planes. The one responsible probably didn't even need to leave the country they're in and probably draws a paycheck and works 8-5. That's just the world we're living in these days.

DEZMOND said...

oh, that sounds rather mysterious! We had such radios when I was a kid both in my home and at my grandfathers.

Jay Noel said...

Alex: Exactly. Unless you have the code book, you can't break the code. Sorry, I was having technical issues!

Pat: Maybe they're going to invade with an army of ABBA.

Samuel: No official word. It's all speculation. With a shortwave radio, you can find them broadcasting all the time.

Gina: Spies are all over. It keeps us all honest.

Michael: China's hackers are notorious. But I'm pretty sure the US hacked into Iran too.

Dez: Wish I had one.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

Now I want to go listen for those numbers!

We had a super powerful radio and my dad picked up all sorts of things on it. (He liked listening to the police band, especially when they sat in our driveway trying to catch speeders.) I don't remember hearing numbers, although we did pick up someone in Australia once.

Emily R. King said...

That is so creepy! I wonder how many are around us that we don't notice!

Elise Fallson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Elise Fallson said...

I've heard of number stations before and they are so creepy. My Dad used to have a short wave radio when I was a kid too. He had a license and call sign and spoke to people all over the world and he would pin their location on the map on his wall.... Their version of the blogosphere I guess. (: I never learned Morse code but I do remember playing around with the key to make all the dit dot dit sounds.

M Pax said...

Interesting. I didn't know about these, but as I was reading I thought of the numbers read in French on Lost. It's kind of creepy, but great story fodder.

Jay Noel said...

Diane: It was fun listening to international broadcasts. Especially the ones from Cuba and S. America.

Emily YOU could be a spy!

Elise: They are super creepy...I think it's because they sound so robotic. Such a mystery. I might get a shortwave radio just to listen to them again.

Jay Noel said...

Mary: I think they were inspired by Numbers Stations.

Sheena-kay Graham said...

That is some awesome info Jay. Thanks for sharing, I want to be part of this mystery.

Robin said...

Clearly this has been a thought-provoking post. I can easily see why the number stations make more sense than using "techie" things to communicate. Good hackers can pretty much hack anything. So, spies are going Old School. Short wave radio, number code, and someone on the other end with the code key, which is immediately destroyed. Makes perfect sense to me. Scares the crap out of me, but makes perfect sense.

Jay Noel said...

Sheena: When you start listening to LIVE numbers stations, you just sit there captivated. Wondering what the message is, and what spies are out there writing down the codes.

Robin: Yeah, scares me too! I thought the Cold War is over. NOT.

Laura Eno said...

What strange stuff! I've never listened to a short-wave radio before. To think these numbers stations are still alive and well is eerie.

The Desert Rocks said...

Yikes, I don't think I'd want to know. Didn't you ever see the movie about the man who knew too much? LOL

Phats said...

OK this was a super cool post! At first it reminded me of King's Under the Dome ha

Morgan said...

This is creepy! Now I'm spooked to go to bed!

Veronica Sicoe said...

Wow, that's weird. I never knew these number stations existed. When I played with radios as a kid, I usually just took them apart and tried to build something new with the pieces. :P (No, I never managed to build a machine that would dispense chewing gum forever)

nutschell said...

wow. I love this post, Jay. So cool! I never knew about these number stations til now. Now I'm eager to learn more about them.

R.S. Hunter said...

I'd totally forgotten about Number Stations until I read this post. I'd done some research on them in the past after I read a short story that featured them.

They're creepy and cool all at the same time.

Mr. Shife said...

I think I might have bad dreams tonight. Thanks a lot Jay. Very interesting and informative blog post. Thanks for sharing. Have a good one.

Jay Noel said...

Every time I listen to one of these recorded numbers stations, I get a little freaked out. Even to this day.

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