Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Explore the century-old mystery of numbers stations

Illustration for article titled Explore the century-old mystery of numbers stations

This week’s entry: Numbers Station

What it’s about: Some time after World War II (if not earlier), shortwave radio broadcasts started appearing with no obvious purpose. A synthesized voice, usually female-sounding, would read out a list of numbers or seemingly random words, sometimes accompanied by morse code with a nonsensical translation. It is widely assumed that the stations are used in spycraft, but no country or intelligence agency has ever admitted to being the source, and their true function remains unknown.


Strangest fact: This isn’t a fact so much as a fascinating bit of speculation: The group behind The Conet Project—a five-CD set of recordings of numbers stations, released in 1997—claims there have been reports of numbers stations as early as World War I. As radio was invented in the 1890s and the first radio stations didn’t appear until 1920, this would make the numbers stations among the first radio broadcasts in history.

Biggest controversy: Wikipedia user TotoCZ claims he or she has confirmation from the Czech Ministry Of Interior that a Czech numbers station was in fact run by that country’s Foreign Intelligence service for “broadcasting into foreign countries.” A long debate ensues on the Talk page as to whether the source is valid enough to include on the main page. If it’s true, it may be the only confirmation of a numbers station’s origin and purpose, but the consensus is that email correspondence posted on someone’s blog doesn’t meet Wikipedia’s standards of reliability.

Thing we were happiest to learn: In 1998, the FBI maybe have cracked the case. The Bureau arrested several suspected Cuban spies known as the Wasp Network, and during their arrest, discovered a decryption program that corresponded with a numbers station known as Atención (each broadcast began with the Spanish word for “attention!”). The FBI was able to translate three messages: “prioritize and continue to strengthen friendship with Joe and Dennis,” “Under no circumstances should German nor Castor fly with BTTR or another organization on days 24, 25, 26, and 27,” and “Congratulate all the female comrades for International Day Of The Woman,” (referring to International Women’s Day). It’s widely suspected that the intended listeners of Atención and other numbers stations use a one-time pad (OTP) method of decoding. Considered one of the only unbreakable codes, OTP encrypts a message with a simple letter-replacement cipher, but the cipher changes with every message. The recipient has a list of ciphers, each corresponding to a single message. Without the list, the ever-changing cipher is impossible to decode.

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Whoever’s behind the numbers stations, the whole world is in on the act. Shortwave differs from traditional radio broadcasting in that its high-frequency radio waves can be bounced off the ionosphere and back to Earth, thereby following the curvature of the Earth. As such, shortwave can be used to broadcast very long distances with relatively little power, and is popular among amateur broadcasters for this reason. The long range of shortwave also makes it difficult to pinpoint a broadcast’s origin, which is how the numbers stations have been able to remain mysterious for so long. But based on various languages the stations have been broadcast in, numbers stations are believed to have originated in the U.S., U.K., U.S.S.R., China, Germany, Israel, the Czech Republic, Israel, and Vietnam, at the very least.

Also noteworthy: As numbers stations have been an object of fascination for nearly a century, there have been numerous references in pop culture. Numbers stations have appeared on Lost, Fringe, Scandal, and The Americans. A numbers station was used as the setting for not-terribly-successful thriller The Numbers Station. And Wilco named its 2001 album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot after a repeated snippet of one of the better-known numbers stations, which broadcasts its opaque messages using the radio alphabet (i.e., Alpha, Bravo, Charlie).

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Numbers stations nearly always broadcast on a schedule, presumably so their intended listeners know when to receive coded messages. Unscheduled broadcasts tend to correspond with world events. One Soviet station broke its schedule to broadcast during the August Coup in 1991. Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev had pushed through reforms that took power away from the Soviet government and transferred more authority to the member republics. A group of Communist hardliners attempted a coup d’état, declaring a state of emergency, and naming one of their number, Gennady Yanayev, acting president, claiming a vacationing Gorbachev was ill and unable to fulfill his duties. After a chaotic few days in which then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin called for widespread protests, and the coup considered attacking Russian Parliament with tanks, Gorbachev had the coup’s leaders arrested, removing them each from office and ending the crisis. However, it’s widely considered that the attempted coup weakened Gorbachev’s government enough to contribute seriously to the breakup of the Soviet Union.


Further down the wormhole: One of the various codes employed by the numbers station is Morse code, the series of dots and dashes known to Boy Scouts everywhere. While Morse code is mainly used as communication at sea and in aviation, it’s also used as an assistive technology, allowing people with disabilities to communicate in the days before electronic voice synthesizers were invented. Many people who have disabilities also have difficulty walking. Proving that people will turn literally anything into a competition to be wagered on, in the 19th century Britain’s national fascination with things that are boring produced competitive walking, or pedestrianism. We’ll take a look at this most thrilling of sports next week.