The phenomenon and intrigue of numbers stations has captured the attention, intrigue and debate of many across the world since they were first noticed originating soon after World War II and typically used for espionage and highly secretive spying purposes.
No Government has ever laid a claim to the use of numbers stations, which are broadcast via the old fashioned shortwave radio band. Yet, they are still in use to this very day across different locations in the world from the Czech Republic, Spain and Germany.
Number stations use a one way communication voice method employed in a highly covert manner, which can then be received by an agent’s standard shortwave radio equipment within the high frequency bands of 3 – 30 MHz. Transmissions are sent at a pre-agreed date, specific time and frequency band and embedded into a sequence line of numbers – they are only ‘read’ and decoded by a receiving agent’s one-time pad (a type of encryption). If everything went as designed, such a one way transmission was classed as being totally secure and unable to be broken. During the past ‘Cold War’, the CIA used this method as their preferential means of contact with their operatives in the field.
A subject which is close to the hearts of many conspiracy theorists, number stations are involved in making covert broadcasts consisting of letters formed into various strings or the traditionally based Morse code and number patterns. They also and somewhat strangely use different kinds and types of voices that are artificially generated. The voices used during the broadcasts are typically of a female origin and gender, although it is reported that both a child’s voice and male voice are occasionally employed for the purpose. ‘The Swedish Rhapsody’ station, in Germany, in an infamous style, uses a female voice of a child to make their transmissions.
Hundreds of existing numbers stations employ the use of an unbending schedule of broadcasting and make transmissions in a large variety of different languages with the chosen female or male voices. They then repetitively sound phonetic letters and various number strings over the whole year, during both daytime and night hours.
The purpose of these secretive messages that are broadcast from shortwave numbers stations has been a closely kept secret for many years and even to this day, remains shrouded in mystery and intrigue. They are an excellent form of communicating with another person in an anonymous fashion, who could be within any location worldwide.
Such a communicative form of contact is perfect to contact spies across the globe discreetly and the receiving spy would only require the use of an easily available, local and standard built shortwave receiver. High frequency radio signals can still travel at quite a low power level and generally reach worldwide destinations whilst travelling within most common weather conditions. Some theorists debate the use of number stations in connection with the purposes of illegal drug trade smuggling.
This ingenious method utilises a system of encryption that is termed as a ‘one time pad’ and is impossible to break; when messages are sent via shortwave numbers stations to the receiving individual who is undercover within another country, the system shows its remarkable strength and capability as it is also extremely difficult, if achievable at all, to locate the end receiving individual and be able to place any observation onto their movements.
Where and how number stations have their origins is still masked in much uncertainness and debate. Around 60 years ago, in the 1950’s, a written article from the Time magazine stated numbers stations first came into existence a short time following the 2nd World War.
Whilst it is largely assumed that the broadcasts from numbers stations was primarily to message the spy community around this time, other sources believe that numbers stations were in fact being used before this period around World War I. If such a report is felt to be genuine and with accuracy, numbers stations would then be able to claim that the very oldest radio broadcasts possibly came from them.
During the First and Second World War it is understandable that such a method of covert communication would need to be used and the reasons behind such a practice. You would be forgiven for thinking the use of shortwave numbers stations had ceased in today’s, highly technological world – however, this is simply not the case. Despite the ‘cold war’ coming to a much warmer end, the Berlin Wall crumbling down, numbers stations, and those spying through their usage appear to have as hectic a schedule in today’s world as sixty or more years ago.
The use of Numbers Stations has practically been ignored and has remained quiet within the media for at least the previous 30 years and it is a bizarre, but intriguing mystery as to why this is the case. A numbers station is currently in use in the Czech Republic permanently and it operates 24 hours a day broadcasting signals. This and other questions have been posed by conspiracy followers and theorists, including asking why numbers stations are permitted to cause interference with other radio services that are vital and important such as control of air traffic and ships in the oceans.
Cuba’s Atención station was the subject of the world’s very first official accusation of sending transmissions to spies; during the evidence given in the US court trial in 1998, they were proven to be previously sending various messages that each took around one minute to transmit.
Those who follow the ever evolving mystery of numbers stations have even given some of them a nickname, which can mimic an original facet of the station, which is also perhaps connected with the interval signal they employ.
The Spanish owned and speaking number station always start their broadcasts with the word “¡Atención!” and has hence been named as “¡Atención!” MI6 have possibly owned and previously been in control of their own station and this was termed by observers as the ‘Lincolnshire Poacher'; the signals from this station have been tracked all the way to Cyprus, at RAF Akrotiri. The name for the potential MI6 numbers station comes from ‘The Lincolnshire Poacher’, a folk song which played for a short burst on the station before every number string started.
The start or beginning of transmissions that are sent not only provide an informal way for enthusiasts to nickname a station, but can also include an identifying signal which could be for the intended end receiver or to give identification of the station. The message introduction, or prelude can be repeated for a number of times in advance of the actual message beginning. As well as a prelude to announcement of a musical nature, some stations may also use radio-alphabet names of code, such as ‘Charlie India Oscar’, ‘250 250 250′. With Israeli based stations who use radio-alphabet introductions, for example similar to ‘Charlie India Oscar-2′, these can give indication to what the message is and how important it could be. In this example, Charlie India Oscar-2 would suggest that a message will not follow afterwards.
An announcing start is often employed by number stations which indicate the amount of number groups that will be in the actual message; after which the groups are played, then often again with a repeat by a group reading on two occasions or with the whole message repeating. The groups will often be made up of radio-alphabet letter or four or five digits.
Number stations often use a format which is quite simple but there can be a whole multitude of dissimilarity from one station to another. Station transmissions often will start each half hour or exactly on the hour. When all the messages scheduled to be sent have been finished by a station, it will then use a ‘sign-off’ using a distinguishing and distinctive manner, perhaps with a simple use of a word – “end” in the station’s native language or “end of message”.
A number of stations, particularly those that hail from the formerly known Soviet Union would complete their transmissions with a postlude created of a number of zeros, for example ‘000 000′. Some stations also end with musical bursts or other miscellaneous sounds. As messages are of a highly discreet and undercover nature, the cryptography (the study and practice of being able to hide information) which is used by certain stations is not in the public eye and only perhaps known in a rare one or two instances.
Transmissions that have been sent from number stations have been on the receiving end of deliberate attempts to jam and prevent them from being successful. But even with these issues of sabotage, a large amount of number stations have managed to keep their broadcasts on track, with no interruptions of note.
Enthusiasts believe that the stations have mostly survived jamming attempts as only a limited amount of transmitters that can be used to jam the signal were in existence to use at any time. Often stations too won’t have a permanent fixed abode and have the same frequency, which also helps prevent jamming as broadcasts can remain undiscovered. It is also possible that an ‘in-house’ agreement was in existence between number stations operators where they would agree not to attempt to deliberately interfere with each other’s transmission signals.
Whatever your view is on the Numbers Stations theories and evidence to date, it is sure to continue being a fascinating subject of intrigue and conspiracy for many. It is shrouded with underground, secretive practices and purposes that provide a glimpse into the world of covert and secretive communication.