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?
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.