So I’ve recently come across “numbers” radio stations. What these are, are shortwave radio stations across the world which regularly broadcast streams of seemingly random numbers. To give you an idea, here’s a recording of the Lincolnshire Poacher:
The Lincolnshire Poacher was a numbers radio station. What you just heard was broadcast several times a day, every day, for decades, with different number in each broadcast. Broadcasts began at least as early as the early 70’s and the last known broadcast was recording in July 2008. For those who don’t know, the name Lincolnshire Poacher is the name of an English folk song, the open bars of which are played repeatedly at the beginning, and end of the recording. The origin of this broadcast remained a mystery for years until amateur sleuths traced the signal to a (British) Royal Air Force base in Cyprus. To this date the British government has never even acknowledged the existence of Lincolnshire Poacher.
That’s very strange right? Well, the strangest part is that Lincolnshire Poacher isn’t even unique, not by a long shot. There are in fact many numbers stations located all around the world and most have been broadcasting for decades. They are a world wide phenomenon and have been so since WWI.
The peculiar thing is that numbers stations are unregistered, that is, their broadcasts are illegal. Yet, they’ve been broadcasting, unimpeded, for the most part, for decades. The question is, who could run a station, heard around the world, in defiance of any local laws, broadcasting numbers, for decades? More importantly, who would?
The most popular answer, and possibly the most likely, is that number stations are a means of communication between nations and covert operatives abroad, that is, they are sending secret messages to spies around the world. There is evidence for this.
For example, numbers station broadcasts are generally broken up into groups of five numbers, repeated. This corresponds to typical practices in sending encrypted messages. Further, of the signals who’s origins have been traced, many have been traced to military bases of various nationalities. Even more, there is often a flurry of activity among the numbers stations during major world events.
When you think about it, the explanation makes sense. Shortwave radio is a nearly foolproof method of sending a signal and all that is needed to receive it is a shortwave radio, a common piece of equipment. The signal won’t give away the operatives because all they have to do is listen in, just like thousands of other people. Using a one-time pad for encryption, the messages can be effectively unbreakable; it doesn’t matter that anybody and everybody can listen in.
So, in the end, it’s quite intriguing. The knowledge that right now, we could listen into broadcasts meant for spies and espionage agents, for any one of many countries, knowing that the messages carry something meaningful for those agents, but not knowing what those message are.