Dé Luain, Eanáir 18, 2010

Numbers Stations

You may have heard of them. Various shortwave radio stations, broadcasting an obviously coded series of numbers in just about every widely spoken language. Governments sending messages to spies in the field is the most obvious explanation, and the fact that governments deny the existence of stations that anyone can physically listen to at any time seems to confirm that they are indeed something of that sort.

There are several good reasons why States would send secret messages over the open airwaves. Shortwave signals reach far, often the whole world, but also cheap enough to be affordable to common people all over the world. A tourist with a shortwave is unlikely to draw any notice. And it is the very openness of radio signals that make them much safer than the internet for spies, here messages are specifically directed, traceable to both sender and receiver, and hard to completely erase from a hardrive.

But the most important thing that makes secret radio messaging possible is the one-time pad, which attaches random groups of numbers to specific words and letters to make a language that is used exactly once. Any further message will be delivered in a different code. It must be known ahead of time just how many messages an agent will receive in the field. This way he can bring the specific number of codebreaking keys with him, and destroy each particular one the moment after it is used. Used correctly, a one-time pad code is unbreakable. So enemy ears can hear these messages coming through loud and clear, know that the carefully arrainged, elucidated, and repeated series of numbers are an obvious code of some kind, know from the language and accent that the message is coming from and being directed to Russians, Germans, Americans, Cubans....., but knowing all of this won't help them figure out anything useful.

Though shortwave signals are often able to reach the whole globe from wherever they happen to be, reception is generally much poorer than AM of FM, so some kind of little ditty will be used like an identifying mark. (Stations are typically nicknamed after the songs used.) These include the German numbers station "Swedish Rhapsody" in which the modern classical number is played in a wind-up doll manner until an automated young girls voice pops up to deliver the goods in the most disturbing robodemon style imaginable. "The Lincolnshire Poacher" played a couple bars of that old English folk song before a somewhat less disturbing grown man's voice delivers the numbers. (Lincolnshire's signal has been traced to the Royal Air Force base on Cyprus, where it could be heard clearly throughout the Middle East by any English speaker who felt the need to hear it. The signal stopped about a year ago for who knows why.)

Then there's UVB 76, "The Buzzer" which has been traced to a Russian military building in the outer Moscow suburbs. "The Buzzer" is exactly that and almost nothing but that. For twenty five years a quick buzz goes off at the rate of twenty five a minute until the fifty ninth minute of the hour, at which time the buzz becomes continuous for the length of that minute until the hour changes. Mundane conversations have occasionaly been heard over the buzz revealing it to be a live buzzer played over a constantly live microphone. On four known occasions the buzz has stopped long enough for some kind of voice message to be given out over the frequency, usually a series of numbers combined with what seems to be a phonetic language. (Ala, "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" only in this case "Ivan, Konstitine, Titania, etc.)
We know then that this is in all likelihood some sort of military intelligence instillation. And we know that whoever in Russia is running it needs to know if the buzzer is still going right now or if it has for some reason stopped right now. Some speculate that the station is involved in the 'Dead Hand' project, which involves automating Russian nukes to fire themselves should the Yankees ever succeed in destroying their government. This theory holds that The Buzzer acts as a killswitch in the system, and that if it ever stops...

Tempting as this theory may be, it seems more likely that the buzzer merely acts as a placeholder for the frequency so that no one else takes it, and that the occasional messages are nothing more sinister than an assassination order or two. The timing of the messages don't line up with anything major in Russian history. ( Collapse of the Soviets, handoff of power from Yeltsin to Putin, etc.) Nor do they line up with any of those nuclear scares they were kind enough to tell us about.

As for me, I've been spending the past two days learning everything I can about these things. I am on the one hand ashamed to have not learned of these things until I was twenty eight. Numbers stations are precisely the sort of thing that Josh Beran takes pride in knowing about. On the other hand learning something truly new to me, something so fascinating, so otherwordly and faintly demonic, fills me with the sort of joy that I don't think I've felt since I mastered Dr. Suess in preschool. These numbers stations really are the eccentric introverted beta-males ultimate wet dream.

These things are so, fucking, cool. And I am buying a motherfucking shortwave.

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