While reading through Wikipedia articles on Cryptography, Steganography, and RSA the other day, I followed a link to a very interesting article on numbers stations. Unless you’re a hardcore shortwave radio junkie, or are yourself involved in high-level intelligence operations you probably have no idea that numbers stations exist. I didn’t. There exist mysterious broadcasts on shortwave radio frequencies whose origins are not officially known and whose contents are intriguing to say the least. These stations broadcast sequences of numbers, usually in sets of five digits and use various languages and voices depending on the station. Voices used range from British man to Spanish woman, and one station even uses the voice of a young girl to read the numbers. Many of the stations open with some sort of identifying music, often a well known musical piece, before listing off the numbers. These numbers are thought to be encoded messages from various government agencies, American and otherwise, to clandestine operatives in the field, wherever “the field” maybe. This makes sense for a few reasons:
First of all, you may know that shortwave radio broadcasts are receivable for incredibly long distances, often times partway around the world from where the broadcast is coming from. This is due to the fact that radio signals at that frequency bounce off of the ionosphere rather than being shot out into space.
Secondly, there is a need for this type of communication to be one-way. Any sort of two-way communication runs a risk of giving away a covert agent’s existence, position, and possibly even more info through traffic analysis. Another key to why shortwave communications are ideal in this situation is that the field agent needs nothing fancier than a shortwave radio, pen, paper, and probably a one-time pad to decrypt the message. A British MI6 agent whose cover is a taxi driver in Cairo can get away with listening to a radio and writing on a piece of paper, but might look a tad suspicious pulling out a laptop and firing off a PGP encrypted email.
I recommend following some of the links at the bottom of the Wikipedia article, especially the ones which allow you do download recordings of these “numbers stations”, very interesting and somewhat creepy.
I have recently been listening to some very interesting music by two guys who call themselves The Books. I heard an interview with one of them on public radio and I knew I recognized the name of the group and it turned out that they have a song on a comp from The Believer which I had been enjoying immensely since last fall. So I ordered their newest album, The Lemon of Pink (2003), and I think it’s really cool. If I were someone who liked to use adjectives, I might say the music is very atmospheric, ambient, and much of it has a very cinematic quality. I threw it up in my iPod and it’s nice to listen to while navigating the trout stream to and from class.
Bulletin! Acquire by any means necessary the latest comedy album from David Cross. It’s called It’s Not Funny but it is really funny! It’s available on Sub Pop Records which is a pretty hip label. The Onion called it “…as urgent and outraged as a Noam Chomsky lecture, but infinitely more entertaining”.