The "Numbers" Stations

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.

    Last update: 25/10/2012

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