I don’t even remember exactly what I was looking for in my Internet browser one day when I was on “web safari”. Undoubtedly, it had something to do with radio since my primary hobby is amateur (ham) radio. Suddenly, an alluring, mysterious list of radio recordings with odd names popped into view. Known as The Conet Project, this collection fills a 4-CD set of live recordings of so-called Numbers Stations from ordinary shortwave radios. Akin Fernandez is The Conet Project as far as I can tell. He has been obsessed with these broadcasts for decades and has done a good job of (re-)raising awareness worldwide about these curious transmissions. Though these recordings are making a bit of a stir now (due in large part to the rock band Wilco, which has used some of these clips in their music), Fernandez is simply re-plowing a forgotten furrow made by others. Unfortunately, no new definitive conclusions are made, and in fact as we’ll see, there may be good reasons to punch holes in the consensus about what these messages really are.

If you visit the Conet Project on the web you will see a long list of downloadable MP3 recordings, one each for a unique Numbers Station transmission. They have intriguing names such as the popular “Swedish Rhapsody”, the “Dashes”, “Gong Chimes”, “DFD 21”, “Strich”, and the “Russian Man”. Mostly, these transmissions are given in voice modes (either AM or Single-SideBand aka SSB) and consist of snippets of odd music or beeps with the voice (usually female) reciting short sequences of numbers. They come in many languages such as Czech, Russian, German, British, and Spanish, to name a few. Often they occur on the hour or half hour and are of short duration (less than 10 minutes).

I first started listening to shortwave radio broadcasts when I was still in grade school. To be sure it was at times a cacophony of strange beeping, whirring, buzzing sounds that were then undecipherable to me. But, I don’t recall hearing anything quite like these strange sequences of letters and numbers that are recorded by Fernandez, however. But, even if I had heard them, it’s likely that I would have given them little thought as a child. I’d probably have shrugged and turned the dial in search of other forms of communication in the ether.

As an adult I’m more intrigued by such oddities, and thanks to folks who like to focus on the undecipherable and enigmatic in life (bless them) I was supplied with what looks like a plausible theory. They have come up with an unsanctioned, circumstantial, officially-denied-by-governments-everywhere, and challenged-by-few consensus as to the origin of these broadcasts. These Numbers Stations aficionados make a convincing – though not air-tight – case. Their reasoning that these are spy network messages is certainly enticing, but can not be proven.

Here are the highlights of their reasoning:

  • You might think that transmitting unscrambled “plain text” secret messages over easily-accessible SW bands would be a genuinely foolish effort. It has advantages however. For one it’s great for the spies as they only need a small consumer-grade SW receiver, one that is not likely to arouse suspicion. Possessing specialized radio or decoding equipment (like most amateur radio enthusiasts have!) could draw attention from the paranoid.
  • Following from that premise, the next piece of evidence is that most, if not all, such transmissions are coming from high-powered stations, in the range of 10-100 KW (up to 500 KW in one case). How is this surmised? It’s a bit beyond me, though real experts with detailed knowledge of radio propagation principals and some well-scattered signal spotters could figure this out easily I think. If these are spy message broadcasts and the spies are using cheap receivers without large antennas, then it makes sense that the signals must be quite strong to compensate.
  • Not many folks can afford the electric bill to run stations at those power levels besides well-heeled governments. Though this point is a rather circular argument to support the previous points, it does indeed make logical sense that governments would be the funding sources and the ones to turn a blind eye to broadcasting license issues.
  • Such transmissions, first in Morse in the early 20th Century, later by AM voice mode, and more recently using SSB mode, have been going on for a long time. During the Cold War the number and frequency of these broadcasts peaked. Since the end of the Cold War, they have dropped to about a third as many. This fact certainly lends credibility to the spy theory. I don’t have to think too hard, however, to explain the fall-off in these transmissions if they were being replaced by more modern means. At this same time we were witnessing the widespread use of global computing networks (leading to the Internet) and the ubiquity of cheap computing devices. No good spy is ever without the most powerful laptop or smartphone (at least in the movies), which could easily be put into action as un-suspicious-looking, cipher-capable communication devices!
  • The most compelling – and paradoxical – evidence to me is the total denial of any government to come clean about the purposes of these transmissions. Yes, it’s reasoning by omission, and thus flaky logic, but my common sense and intuition together manage to challenge my natural skepticism.
  • There is one other key question in all this puzzlement. By it’s nature, that question is difficult to answer: If these are codes, how are they encoded and why can’t they be broken? Well, on occasion it seems they have been at least partially broken. And such cases give weight to an idea that to send secret message in the open, as it were, could only be accomplished by one technique. That technique is referred to as a “one-time pad” or one-time shared key. This encoding technique is deceptively simple, but, if done correctly, achieves “perfect secrecy”. Without going into too much detail, it’s a substitution process using simple math and a unique translation key. It’s simple enough to decode (if you have the key!) and, in fact, can be accomplished with just paper (the “pad”) and pencil by any spy worth his salt.

The concept of the one-time pad (key) has been around since the 19th Century and is considered unbreakable if the key for the message is used once and only once. It has some practical disadvantages, not the least of which is key distribution. Due to its utter unbreakability and the nature of the Numbers Stations’ messages, it is a plausible technique for open broadcasts. Again, however, given the technology available to today’s spy, this explanation can provoke my skepticism further.

Whatever these strange messages, racing through the atmosphere are, they are at the least both interesting and amusing. It’s good to live in a world where there are unsolved mysteries such as this. It’s also comforting to me, as a ham operator, that others still find the shortwave frequencies useful, which have been around for so long, and forgotten by so many. Maybe I’ll switch on the rig (ham lingo for a radio) and tune around the bands right now to see if I can spot one of these Cold War relics on the air.

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