Sunday, January 09, 2005


Numbers Stations.

You simply *must* visit Ace to see this post about "Numbers Stations."

To put it mildly, I am shocked that I've never heard about these before. I've spent many years following intelligence, and I've never once come across this subject. Really spooky stuff (literally).

My first reaction upon reading Ace's post, and nothing further, was that if these are intelligence codes, they're most likely diplomatic codes, run out of embassies.

Why? Because agents under cover don't transmit long strings of numbers for hours on end over shortwave radios. If they have any radio communications at all, they rely on systems capable of sending burst transmissions, i.e., a lot of information in a very short period of time. This minimizes both the chances of detection, and decoding (although with a one-time pad, decoding isn't a concern).

Checking one of Ace's links, this page lends credence to the embassy theory. It also suggests that the numbers transmissions may be used to hide burst transmissions within the bandwidth. It's possible, but there's a lot of bandwidth out there in government use, not to mention more efficient waveforms than shortwave (such as Extremely High Frequency, which is used by military satellites such as Milstar).

If these are one-time pad transmissions, and they've been going on for decades, they're probably used for fairly routine communications (i.e. Embassy data dumps). Unlike electronic encryption-- which CAN be broken-- one-time pads, while secure, can be complex and time-consuming to use. Again, knowing government work, govies everywhere like to use the latest toys for whatever it is they do, so I can't see shortwave being the communications mechanism of choice. It's probably used because it's dependable.

And, more importantly, it's not just used by the United States, but other nations as well. It may be that numbers stations are the international standard for low-level intelligence operations. Kind of like the yellow distro envelope in an age of email.

Anyways. . . Very interesting stuff. You definitely learn something new every day.

UPDATE: I don't want to give the impression that I'm concluding these stations are related to national intelligence activities. My discussion above was predicated on the *assumption* that the numbers stations have something to do with intelligence transmissions.

Besides, the internet is chock full of ridiculous conspiracy theories just waiting to suck in any Art Bell enthusiast eager to believe bullscooper.

As the website I linked to above states, there are alternative explanations, including the possibility that these stations are used by international criminal organizations. Or perhaps there's yet another explanation more rational/obvious that I'm either not considering or aware of.

Hey, it sounds like people have been speculating about these things for decades; I just found out about them tonight. Cut me some slack, Jack.

UPDATE TO THE UPDATE: This 1999 Salon piece has more on numbers stations. It also makes it clear that I'm a pretty stupid guy this late on a Saturday night/Sunday morning.

The numbers stations are most likely set as controller-to-agent communications, which of course would not require anything as fancy as burst transmissions. Everybody in the world can hear the transmission, but only the agent with his or her one time pad could decipher it.

Any old Javier, Nikolai or Chu waiting to receive instructions from their handlers could be provided with pad and told to turn their shortwave to such-and-such a frequency at a certain time. After some intense scribbling and decoding, they have their message ("Drink. More. Ovaltine.")

Of course, the transmitters could still be located at foreign embassies, but with the distance abilities of shortwave, there's probably no real need (unless the station chiefs want the freedom to offer their own on-site instructions).

Anyways, weird but cool stuff. To me, the neatest thing about these (aside from just learning about them) is that they're still in use, so long after they came into being. They obviously must be effective, whatever their true purpose is.

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