A numbers station is a type of shortwave radio station characterized by unusual broadcasts, reading out lists of numbers or incomprehensible morse code messages. The voices are often created by speech synthesis and are transmitted in a wide variety of languages. The voices are usually female, although sometimes men’s or children’s voices are used. Some voices are synthesized and created by machines; however, some stations used to have live readers.
In the 1960s, Time magazine reported that the numbers stations first appeared shortly after World War II and were imitating a format that had been used to send weather data during that war. It is widely assumed that these broadcasts transmit covert messages to spies. The Czech Ministry of Interiorand the Swedish Security Service have both acknowledged the use of numbers stations by Czechoslovakia for espionage, with declassified documents proving the same. With a few exceptions, no QSL responses have been received from numbers stations by shortwave listeners who sent reception reports to said stations, which is the expected behavior of a non-clandestine station.
The best known of the numbers stations was the „Lincolnshire Poacher„, which is thought to have been run by the British Secret Intelligence Service.
In 2001, the United States tried the Cuban Five on the charge of spying for Cuba. That group had received and decoded messages that had been broadcast from Cuban numbers stations. Also in 2001, Ana Belen Montes, a senior US Defense Intelligence Agency analyst, was arrested and charged with espionage. The federal prosecutors alleged that Montes was able to communicate with the Cuban Intelligence Directorate through encoded messages, with instructions being received through „encrypted shortwave transmissions from Cuba”. In 2006, Carlos Alvarez and his wife, Elsa, were arrested and charged with espionage. The U.S. District Court Florida stated that „defendants would receive assignments via shortwave radio transmissions”.
In June 2003, the United States similarly charged Walter Kendall Myers with conspiracy to spy for Cuba and receiving and decoding messages broadcast from a numbers station operated by the Cuban Intelligence Directorate to further that conspiracy.
It has been reported that the United States used numbers stations to communicate encoded information to persons in other countries. There are also claims that State Department operated stations, such as KKN50 and KKN44, used to broadcast similar „numbers” messages or related traffic.
References in mass media
- American television series Fringe has an episode (season 3, episode 6) featuring a numbers station, as do the series Scandal (season 2, episode 6),Covert Affairs (season 1, episode 2), Lost (season 1, episode 18) and The Americans (season 1, episode 8 and season 2, episode 2), along with the podcast Welcome to Night Vale (episode 6, „The Drawbridge” and episode 42, „Numbers”).
- The band Wilco named its album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2001) after a segment of a recorded numbers station transmission. The recording is also sampled in the song „Poor Places” on the album.
- The British-American action thriller The Numbers Station, released in April 2013 and starring John Cusack and Malin Åkerman, features a CIA-run numbers station in the British countryside.
- In Treyarch and Activision‘s 2010 PC/console game Call of Duty: Black Ops, the primary character Alex Mason is captured and programmed to understand broadcasts from a Russian numbers station.
- The song ‘Even Less’ by Porcupine Tree samples a real numbers station at the end of the track.
- Neil Cicierega‘s 2014 mashup album ‘Mouth Silence’ includes one track consisting of a fabricated numbers station, which uses a sample of Space Oddityby David Bowie.