Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Nerd History: Secret Shortwave Spy Stuff

Imagine a world where people, organizations, probably even the government, are communicating with each other in plain sight right under our noses. Communication that is so clear, so overt, that someone with $50, electricity, and a little luck can listen in on these communications.

That world is ours, and we live here now. Welcome to the weird world of numbers stations. Join me beyond the jump for some shortwave fun:

If you were a Lost fan, you'll recall the radio broadcasts from the first season rattling off the series of numbers. I personally got addicted to numbers stations during an episode of Fringe, and many may recall the disembodied female voice rattling off the words "yankee...hotel...foxtrot..." near the end of Wilco's song "Poor Places." These mysterious broadcasts that coordinate spy rings, drug trafficking, or whatever else have a cultural as well as societal impact.

Now, a lot of what I'm saying above is speculation - we don't know for certain that these broadcasts are government communications, but it's pretty safe to assume, thanks to information from a busted Cuban spy ring. The reality is that we're likely surrounded by spy games on a regular basis, and anyone with a little technical know-how can get involved, even if you're unlikely to ever actually crack the code.

It's believed that these stations have been in operation for nearly 100 years. As early as initial radio broadcasts for public consumption, these stations were reported to be in use during World War 1, and for good reason - shortwave broadcasts can be heard at surprisingly long distances, meaning that governments can communicate far beyond their borders.

The general use of these stations appear to be some sort of pattern, often numbers, that can only be decrypted by the person the message is intended for. They use what's commonly referred to as a "one time pad," which allows the recipient of the message to translate the numbers into letters and, thus, a message. It's what makes these shortwave broadcasts so ingenius - as long as the person receiving the messages isn't compromised, the sender can broadcast open-air communications to any number of spies without anyone knowing what they mean.

It is no surprise, with that in mind, that such stations are still being used today. The Cuban ring that was broken up has been replaced by another station still broadcasting. The United States has been known to broadcast some from Virginia and Florida, and the United Kingdom broadcast two of the more famous stations, nicknamed The Lincolnshire Poacher (note: I use this station broadcast as my cell phone ringtone. It confuses both dogs and parents) and Cherry Ripe for the songs that bookend the numbers broadcasts. Russia also runs a communication station known as UVB-76. UVB-76 is interesting more due to what we do know about it - mainly its trademark buzz continued through the 1991 coup, and went offline recently when the Russian spy ring was broken up, and again sometime last year before acting in very unpredictable ways.

As one digs further into the transmissions, you learn all about a bunch of different stations that do strange things - some that exist solely to block other transmissions, some that just make a ton of mistakes along the way, some that are just plain creepy. The best resource available, although much of it is about stations that no longer operate, is The Conet Project, which curates 4 CDs worth of broadcasts from all over the world. The recordings, offered as a free legal download, also comes with a great booklet that talks more in depth about many of the stations and much of the history. Shortwave America has a fairly comprehensive look at a number of articles about stations, the Conet Project, and some of the folks who involved themselves with finding and tracking these broadcasts.

As for me, I love the mystery. I love the way that it feels like I'm doing something wrong when I hear the recordings. I haven't gotten a shortwave radio yet...but I might. For now, I'll just let other people figure out the weird mysteries along the way.

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