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The Numbers Stations Analyzed, Discussed 224

GMontag wrote to mention a Washington Post article about the always-intriguing 'number' radio broadcasts. The numbers stations, as they are known, are 'hiding in plain sight' spycraft. Random digits broadcast at little-used frequencies are known to be intelligence agencies broadcasting their secrets in encrypted form. The Post article gives a nice run-down on the truth behind the transmissions, and touches a bit on the odd community that has grown fascinated by them. From the article: "On 6840 kHz, you may hear a voice reading groups of letters. That's a station nicknamed 'E10,' thought to be Israel's Mossad intelligence. Chris Smolinski runs and the 'Spooks' e-mail list, where 'number stations' hobbyists log hundreds of shortwave messages transmitted every month. 'It's like a puzzle. They're mystery stations,' explained Smolinski, who has tracked the spy broadcasts for 30 years." This article made me recall a great All Things Considered story from a few years back about Akin Fernandez's 'Numbers' CD, a CD compilation of some of the most interesting strings of randomly read numbers reaching out across the airwaves.
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The Numbers Stations Analyzed, Discussed

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  • 1258965 (Score:5, Informative)

    by TechnoLust ( 528463 ) * <.kai.technolust. .at.> on Friday December 29, 2006 @02:15PM (#17400656) Homepage Journal




  • by LiquidCoooled ( 634315 ) on Friday December 29, 2006 @06:15PM (#17403614) Homepage Journal
    It was discussed on slash previously in the following article:

    Numbers Stations Move From Shortwave To VoIP [].

  • What if they were IP addresses?

    207 46 225 60 207 46 18 30 ;)
  • by andy314159pi ( 787550 ) on Friday December 29, 2006 @06:37PM (#17403822) Journal
    If you have a cheap short wave radio, even a "radio shack" one, you can pick up voice audio coded messages to spies that the CIA sends to agents. You will only find them by pure chance, but I have managed to find them and record them but I would say that for every 6 or 8 months of listening to short wave radio I will hear only 1 of these broadcasts. It's usually the same female voice. It's great fun when you find one, you feel like you hit the lottery.
    • Yes, well ... remember what happened when the fat guy in Lost played the numbers he got from the guy in the psycho ward who heard them on the radio. Well, yeah, he won 68 million dollars or some such, but it was all downhill from there.
    • I guess it's just a saying, but I take it you have never really hit the lottery? :)

    • I'm not disbelieving you in the slightest; while I haven't heard any numbers stations personally (although actually I have the equipment to do so, I've just never hunted around -- now maybe I will though), it makes sense that they'd be around. As a method of communication it makes quite a bit of sense, particularly given their pre-Internet origins.

      However, I'm interested as to why you think it's specifically the CIA? It seems like the CIA would probably have more sophisticated methods of communication, via
      • by i_ate_god ( 899684 ) on Friday December 29, 2006 @07:25PM (#17404256)
        You're a spy. You're sent in to infiltrate a terrorist organization in some self sustaining desert town full of impoverished potential recruits for the terrorist organization. Shortwave is a common technology amongst these kinds of towns. Radios have been around for over 100 years now I believe (if not almost 100 years). Your laptop, PDA, or other fancy high tech equipment is going to give you away.
      • by hazem ( 472289 ) on Friday December 29, 2006 @07:38PM (#17404338) Journal
        If you are in the US military and go to the language school in Monterey, a big portion of your "lab" training is learning how to transcribe groups of numbers read in your target language. It's a big part of your "grade" in your coursework.

        Now, it's hard to say if the US transmits numbers, but it's pretty clear that there appears to be some intelligence value in teaching the electronic warfare people how to listen to streams of numbers in other languages.

        It's probably a great way to send one-way messages to the field. A simple AM radio can be modified work in different frequencies. With that and a normal-looking one-time-pad code book can go a long way to providing secure communication that is inconspicuous.

        So, the CIA might not do it, but other countries and services probably do.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        the main reason they still use short wave is the that some of "short wave" isn't so short... the frequencies that they use are the ones that carry long distances so that the origin of broadcast can be very far away from the agent. Also, the devices required to listen to particular frequencies can be made very small so that agents in difficult places can hide the devices. Finally and most importantly, the broadcast voice of the coded messages is distinctly American. Maybe another country could use the voi
        • Les sanglots longs des violons de l'automne

          Blessent mon coeur d'une langueur monotone...


          • by grcumb ( 781340 )

            Les sanglots longs des violons de l'automne

            Blessent mon coeur d'une langueur monotone...

            Aww shit, do we gotta invade Franc again?!

      • by Detritus ( 11846 )
        I've read that some of the numbers stations have been confirmed to originate from transmitters located at federal communications centers in the USA.

        One of the advantages of using numbers stations is that your agent only needs an ordinary short-wave radio, a one-time pad, and minimal training. That's safer than giving them some widget that can't pass as a normal piece of electronics.

      • The CIA and the NSA have a large number of channels of communication. They use push and pull technologies. I would be surprised if they were not using radio (a push tech) as well as the net (more of a pull). Keep in mind, that monitoring the net is quite a bit easier than monitoring the airwaves. Also easier to jam. That means that the enemy can easily find an agent, but not with a radio that transmits. After all, did you notice the shear number of stations coming from Cuba? That is in use by cuban and russ
      • Using more advanced forms of communications requires advanced technology with bandwidth requirements. While it may be possible with satellite phones or a PDA with a satellite uplink, it could cause unnecessary RF noise that could be picked up by other monitoring devices (e.g., like your cell phone constantly sending out signals to connect to the tower). If you are in covert ops, then it is possible to find yourself in a situation where you are surrounded by systems that listen out for unauthorized RF noise.
  • There was a BBC radio programme about this a few months ago: -poacher/ []
  • Radio: 1... 2... 3... 4... 5!

    1 2 3 4 5? That's amazing! I've got the same combination on my luggage!
  • by __aaclcg7560 ( 824291 ) on Friday December 29, 2006 @06:49PM (#17403930)
    So the little voices I been hearing is from the spooks instead of the green little men. Maybe I been watching too much X-Files.
  • link []
  • Shortwave (Score:5, Interesting)

    by finalbroadcast ( 1030452 ) on Friday December 29, 2006 @06:53PM (#17403984)
    As an avid Shortwave fan, there are less and less clear stations broadcasting to NA, as more and more world service broadcasts move to the Internet. (YEAH I'm talking about you BBC) I wonder how long until the only people who own shortwave radios are spies? Although propaganda stations are well worth the price of the radio. Listen to Cuba's hour loop of things we blame on the US today, and keep a straight face, I dare you.
  • Source code (Score:5, Funny)

    by mcrbids ( 148650 ) on Friday December 29, 2006 @07:00PM (#17404056) Journal
    I don't know if I should do this - releasing secrets from the FBI like this commonly leads to life in Gitmo Bay - but information wants to be free!

    The "numbers" stations only exist to confuse people. On Wednesdays, we have "beer" day, where you are entitled to a beer from the cooler if the number 12725 comes out.

    So we had one day, last year, where somebody (I think it was the Chinese) hacked our main server, and made it broadcast 12725 continuously all day. So there we were, plastered out of our mind, when 270 Lbs of fissionable material was stolen from our floor. The investigation is due to be completed sometime around 2021 - we don't talk about that very much.

    Anyway, here's the source code:

    #! /bin/sh
    cat /dev/urandom > /dev/bcast;
    Information wants to be free!
  • Neat (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Perseid ( 660451 ) on Friday December 29, 2006 @07:06PM (#17404102)
    I remember when I was 12 or so and heard one of these for the first time. A woman reading numbers in Spanish. Damned if I didn't feel like James Bond sitting there listening to it. I still have that radio, too. Too bad it doesn't pick up anything besides evangelical stations now. Yes, technology has advanced and the world has moved on. So have I. I accept that. But there was a certain thrill of finding that clandestine guerrilla propaganda station that just can't be replaced with web surfing.
  • Ad revenue (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Kennric ( 22093 ) on Friday December 29, 2006 @07:07PM (#17404120) Homepage
    With these stations becoming so popular, isn't it time to sell ads? After all, spy agencies can always use the extra cash, and the people who listen to these things probably constitute a solid geek demographic.

    Or worse:

    1) Create personal numbers station with especially intriguing sequences to draw audience
    2) Sell ads on your personal number station
    3) Profit! ... why do I feel like I've missed a step there?
  • by GaelTadh ( 916987 ) * on Friday December 29, 2006 @07:14PM (#17404186) Homepage
    four eight fifteen sixteen twentythree fortytwo
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by currivan ( 654314 )
      Great, now we have to post this every 108 minutes.
      • by rikkards ( 98006 )
        Great, now we have to post this every 108 minutes.

        Could have been worse. It could have been every 108 posts. Try to get that right
  • by 3mpire ( 953036 ) on Friday December 29, 2006 @07:18PM (#17404216)
    You can download the mp3's for free: []
  • by Anonymous Coward
    British Intelligence broadcasting from Cyprus

    It's quite likely they're broadcasting from here Google Satellite []

    That's Ayios Nikolaos []. Supposedly part of the Echelon network. If you look to the north of the building, there's a large mast that might easily be a short-wave antenna.

  • Awaiting the follow-up Slashdot article about Numbers Websites and Numbers IRC Channels ... are there any known ones?

  • by chrisgagne ( 605844 ) on Friday December 29, 2006 @07:39PM (#17404344) Homepage Journal
    For those of you who like this sort of thing, check out 202-386-6909 and []. This is a test project that I developed for, a new and entirely non-commercial (no ads, fees, etc) website designed to help with real-world problem solving. (Think of it as a "" for projects like the "Open Prosthetics Project." []) The first person to solve the puzzle and post the answer to the code-breaker project can choose where the team will make a $100 donation on their behalf.

    If this sounds like fun, please consider signing up for the site at [] (a "secret back door for a site that normally requires registration) and try to crack the code. Also, please consider checking out the main planning project at [] and our Flash-based demo at []. I'd love to hear your thoughts, too... just reply. :)
  • Top Of The Pops! (Score:3, Interesting)

    by qengho ( 54305 ) on Friday December 29, 2006 @08:00PM (#17404544)
    Yankee []
    Hotel []
    Foxtrot []
  • Um, hello? Typical bloody troll. Now it's appropriate, it sods off.
  • Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
    Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
    Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
  • by jeffmeden ( 135043 ) on Friday December 29, 2006 @09:19PM (#17405038) Homepage Journal
    I am a habitual NPR listener, but everyone I know finds it slow, uninteresting, easily dismissed radio. I try to expose them to intriguing news material that's delivered spin free and very palatable, but have not yet impressed a single person. It's times like these that I just shake my head and sigh.

    "a great All Things Considered story from a few years back about Akin Fernandez's 'Numbers' CD, a CD compilation of some of the most interesting strings of randomly read numbers"

    Interesting... random numbers... Ok, so my friends were right.
    • I am a habitual NPR listener, but everyone I know finds it slow, uninteresting, easily dismissed radio. I try to expose them to intriguing news material that's delivered spin free and very palatable, but have not yet impressed a single person. It's times like these that I just shake my head and sigh.

      "a great All Things Considered story from a few years back about Akin Fernandez's 'Numbers' CD, a CD compilation of some of the most interesting strings of randomly read numbers"

      Interesting... random numbers... Ok, so my friends were right.

      So, the Number Stations story is completely boring, and your friends were right. And yet, you're reading (and posting) about it when it's on Slashdot? What about /. makes the story inherently more interesting?

      NPR covered it years earlier, and their story has much better content than the submitted story here. I remember listening to the story in question, and it was very interesting.

      So yes, NPR might just not suck.

      (comming to you live from a Cambridge, MA, brie eating liberal)

  • I picked up a radio station once on one of those obscure channels that wasn't registered to any radio stations. It just seemed to be random sentences and/or words, nothing all day but random sentences and words. Listened to it for a while, got bored and moved on.

    I think this is to keep all those 'conspiratists' busy decrypting random data instead of real transfers going on on other channels.
  • This one is better than the silly numbers stations []
  • by flyingfsck ( 986395 ) on Friday December 29, 2006 @11:40PM (#17405930)
    I listened to some of those recordings and they were clearly the leaders transmitted by commercial stations, to indicate where the real transmission is. Over the course of the day, shortwave stations move to different frequencies, that are better propagated by the ionosphere.

    When a station moves to a new frequency, they continue to play a unique identifier tune and read out the frequencies where the station may be received better. For example, 39715 would be 39MHz715.

    Others may simply be a station transmitting automated junk, in order to 'occupy' the channel, so that someone cannot apply to the IETF to use the unused channel. Since they all have these number voice systems to announce their frequencies, it is logical to use that system to occupy the channel with random junk.
    • by Hasai ( 131313 ) on Saturday December 30, 2006 @12:45AM (#17406280)
      I beg to disagree. Number stations are quite real. What possibly confused you is how some number stations operate.

      Take the old Radio Moscow transmitter in East Berlin, for example. You are quite right that such HF broadcasts would often end with a looping tape containing info on what freq(s) the site would be transmitting next. Well and good.

      Eventually, though, the tape ends and the transmitter shuts down. Fine. Now all you're listening to is a whole lot of nothing but white noise, right? STAY ON THE FREQ FOR ANOTHER 5-10 MINUTES. Suddenly another carrier comes up, and a woman's voice starts. On the Radio Moscow freq she would always start with "Achtung, achtung," then proceed to read-off a long string of number groups (NOT freqs!). When done, she would finish with "Ende," and the carrier would immediately drop.

      Still sound like a freq change notice to you? :)

  • by dircha ( 893383 ) on Friday December 29, 2006 @11:40PM (#17405934)
    Shouldn't it be possible to use a directional antenna or some similar technology, from several points around the globe to locate the source of the transmissions with a reasonably high degree of precision?

    I don't have any shortwave equipment myself, but it seems that would be a very interesting project.

    It would be quite exciting, say, to discover signals originating from a mountain in Wyoming :)

    This is pretty sweet. It's a very interesting strategy. Shortwave receivers are easy to come by, do not arouse suspicion, and no one can detect that you are listening in.
    • by KillerBob ( 217953 ) on Saturday December 30, 2006 @12:26AM (#17406140)
      The thing with HF is that there's really no way to reliably determine where the signal is coming from, because it's operating at a frequency that can bounce around in the ionosphere indefinitely. That's how they're able to send a signal from distances beyond line of sight... it's not penetrating the Earth, it's bouncing around in the atmosphere.

      Given the right atmospheric conditions, you can pick up the signal decades later: one of the coolest things that ever happened to me was picking up battle chatter from Vietnam while on a training exercise with Army Signals. I'm 25. It was eerie people die in a transmission that was sent before I was born.
      • by Macgyver7017 ( 629825 ) on Saturday December 30, 2006 @01:05AM (#17406410)
        Not to be rude, but I call BS.

        The number of reflections that an HF signal would undergo in a decade of bouncing around anything the size of the earth, is simply astronomical. The efficiency of reflection would have to be similarly astronomical.

        Let alone enough of the signal staying intact to still hear several seconds of it (enough to identify it as Vietnam chatter).
      • by Phrogman ( 80473 ) on Saturday December 30, 2006 @09:55AM (#17408398) Homepage
        I have not experienced this firsthand when I was in Military Signals, but I have certainly been told it can happen - by my instructors, in class and apparently in all seriousness. Its pretty rare but evidently some signals can survive up in the ionosphere for extremely long periods of time. The example they mentioned was having heard message traffic over HF that apparently dated from an exercise shortly after WWII, but received in the late 80's sometime.

        I know I have heard a signal I sent, bounce right around the earth and come back to our receiver a few mins later. I also remember picking up a signal on Military frequences in Northern Ontario (I was in the Canadian Military) that originated down in Florida, evidently on a Taxi transmitter, judging by the conversation I had with the guy when I asked him to leave our channel.

        Radio is fascinating stuff, its a shame its losing its popularity to the Internet and computers, because its still a very neat and geeky technology.

  • codename: Jenny. Passphrase: Tommy Tutone
  • Not code but keys? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by plopez ( 54068 ) on Saturday December 30, 2006 @02:16AM (#17406784) Journal
    OK, what if the sequences are one time pad keys or other crypto keys? Then there would be nothing to crack, there is no message. The end user and the transmitter agree on a protocol, e.g., only use the sequence generated at 1620 UTC. Then after each day that sequence is discarded.

    The info is then sent by email, ground mail, radio, etc. encrypted with that key.

    So not only would there be nothing to crack, but the vast majority of the numbers would just be noise.
  • by AB3A ( 192265 ) on Saturday December 30, 2006 @12:55PM (#17409526) Homepage Journal
    Years ago, some friends of mine used to find sport listening to "Numbers Stations". One in particular, during the Soviet era, used to identify itself as "The Moscow Radiotelephone Station." They would get on the air and proclaim "This data is for Testing Purposes Only, from the Moscow Radio Telephone Station, Book xx, Page yy, Group zz..." and then proceed with five letter cipher groups in perfect english phonetics. (Substitute xx, yy, and zz with whatever numbers of book, page and group they were sending at the time).

    They were once reputed to have closed their broadcast on New Year's Eve with "and greetings to our friends in the CIA." Who says spies have no sense of humor?

God made the integers; all else is the work of Man. -- Kronecker