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The Creepiness of Shortwave: Numbers Stations
Weirdness On the Shortwave Bands
Numbers stations lurk on the shortwave bands and finding them can be a challenge. However, fans of shortwave radio have been following them for years now, documenting when and where they were found. The strange thing is, no one knows for sure what numbers stations are or what they are for.
Numbers stations are odd, there is no doubt about it. Normally they start with a tone, or sometimes music, crackling and noisy over those shortwave bands. Then there is a voice, often female, that says something like "Attention! Attention" or "Achtung! Achtung!" or some other order that alerts to whomever the broadcast is meant for to listen up. Then, after a pause, the female voice begins stating a series of random numbers, or sometimes code words. This goes on for a while, then a pause, then the series of numbers and codes repeat. They usually repeat again, there is an "end message" code and the broadcast ends.
They vanish as quickly as they appear, into the ether of static and radio broadcasts.
From the Start
Numbers stations started almost as soon as radio became a real thing. Of course, military uses for radio were immediately sought out and used. During World War I the first documented numbers stations began to appear. Series of codes and numbers were transmitted on both sides of the line and that means numbers stations were some of the earliest broadcasts ever.
Numbers stations continued during World War II and then began to transmit around the world from a variety of locations once the Cold War started. This has led to a number of theories about what they are and what their purpose is.
The Theorized Purposes
The most prominent purpose stated for numbers stations is that they are for spy purposes. The idea is that the spies are supposed to be in front of their radio at a certain time of the day. They are equipped with tiny one-time pads which contain codes that are used only once and then each page is destroyed. The initial codes tell the spy which page and which code they are using for the day and the rest of the numbers are the actual message.
There have been actual court cases about these stations and that was the one mentioned in the court case. Sometimes in cases of unrest and political troubles the number of broadcasts increase such as the August Coup of 1991 in Soviet Union.
Another theory is that numbers stations are used to coordinate drug drops and deals. That those involved in the deal, much like the spies, tune in and get their codes and that provides information and coordinates for the drug drop and pick up.
No one knows for sure, there are some who say that numbers stations are deliberate misdirection, often used to cause code breakers to spend time trying to break those codes and distract them from other methods of transmitting messages.
Methods of Transmitting
It is thought that most of the stations use automated systems. The voices tend to sound robotic. Most of them sound like women, sometimes they sound like a child, but sometimes they are men. There are a few numbers stations that use live broadcasters, such as one that has been traced to Cuba, where a live person broadcasts as evidenced by the times the reader has been heard laughing, or noise has been heard in the background.
Tracking the Stations
Of course, radio transmissions can be tracked. There have been attempts to find the sources of these stations. It can be difficult to track them down, but there have been attempts.
A station known for its call sign of Attencion! has been tracked to Cuba. There have also been numbers stations transmissions tracked to Warrenton, Virginia as well areas of Florida. Others have been tracked to embassies for foreign countries in Washington, D.C.
The stations tend to get named based on something distinctive about them. Some of these stations start with snippets of various folks tunes played. This is meant to be the attention-getter and alert those who are supposed to receive the message that the message is about to begin. Some of the most famous are:
- The Lincolnshire Poacher - a station that starts off playing the first few bars of the folks song "The Lincolnshire Poacher." This station has one of the strongest signals and is one of the most famous around. It is theorized that this signal is run by the UK's Secret Intelligence Service out of Cyprus.
- Cherry Ripe - another station named after the folk tune that indicates a broadcast is to start. This station is also very powerful and has been long-running. The station has not been heard since 2009, but bore many similarities to the Lincolnshire Poacher station.
- Attencion! - a station out of Cuba that starts with the word Attencion! Attencion! repeated. Once the frequency accidentally broadcast some of Radio Havana Cuba. There was a court case brought against this station by the United States in 1998.
- Magnetic Fields
- Swedish Rhapsody - starts off with "Achtung! Achtung" which is "Attention Attention" followed by a series of numbers in German. There is also a tune played before the numbers starts. This station was used in the horror movie Banshee Chapter.
- Havana Moon - Another Cuba station.
The Attencion Case
In 1998 the United States brought a case against the Attencion! station and formally accused it of sending transmissions to spies. The FBI found several spies and they also found laptops and computers with codebreaking software. When the agents entered codes from the radio station into this software, messages were found. The numbers station was the crucial piece of evidence against those arrested for being part of the Wasp Network spy ring.
The case produced only three decoded messages:
- prioritize and continue to strengthen friendship with Joe and Dennis
- Under no circumstances should [agents] German or Castor fly with BTTR or another organization on days 24, 25, 26 and 27.
- Congratulate all female comrades for International Day of the Woman.
No one knows for sure that numbers stations are about. There are theories, and the most likely seems to be sending messages to spies in deep enemy territory. Although there are computers and ways to send messages that do not involve a radio broadcast, this old method still seems to be one of the most reliable around. The codes are hard to break, the transmissions can be heard anywhere in the world with a simple shortwave receiver, and the stations are relatively hard to jam.
There are several sites dedicated to finding these stations and you can find them online. Thus, if you can find a shortwave radio, you too can listen to numbers stations.