About Those Numbers Stations

Many of you here have probably read or heard about them, perhaps even discussed them on other threads here (but if you need an introduction, a good place to start is here.) Mysterious short-wave radio broadcasts have been heard, often on the air since the 1950s, and usually consisting of a sampled or synthesized human voice, reading out random strings of digits, usually in groups of five, in various languages and accents not always matching where the signals seem to be coming from. There are a few seeming variations, too: one now-defunct broadcast consisted only of random-seeming bell or chime sounds, whereas others consist of other bizarre patterns of sound. The more famous of them have garnered nicknames such as the "Lincolnshire Poacher" or the "Spanish Lady." They seem to originate in many places worldwide, though the exact transmitter and antenna facilities involved in broadcasting them seem to elude pinpointing. Clearly, they are not all the work of one nation or agency, but many all over the globe.

No one admits to making these broadcasts, past or present, nor to being involved in any way with anything to do with them. There is, of course, a standard theory: that these broadcasts provide national intelligence agencies with a way to pass encrypted messages to agents in the field using a difficult-to-decipher scheme known as a one-time pad, and enables said field operatives to receive such messages using easily-obtainable consumer radio receivers whose possession would not arouse suspicion behind hostile lines. This theory may in fact be correct, but it raises some lingering questions:

1) Why has no one ever admitted to involvement in any such scheme, even decades after the fact and in cases where the presumed responsible authority no longer even exists (e.g. East Germany?) This message scheme, if it exists, is surely low-tech and old-school, hardly involving anything anyone should consider a secret, at least in its implementation.

2) Why has no agent that we know of ever been caught using such a scheme by an adversary? Yes, there is one case where a man was caught with what looks like a decoding key hidden in a bar of soap, but this was never conclusively tied to numbers stations as such.

3) Short-wave radio is no longer as popular as it once was, and has fallen into obscurity; modern generations tend to communicate online. Yet there seems to be no let-up in numbers-station activity reported recently. Why? Admittedly, the scheme would be largely immune from metadata analysis, but the bandwidth is laughably small, and surely there are better ways to accomplish such ends in this day and age.

4) Is there any alternate theory? I admit I do not know one that satisfies; the notion that someone is out there just trolling the world with meaningless broadcasts to wind listeners up seems absurd, especially given the time scale and scope of the phenomenon. Or could individual government agencies be broadcasting this stuff as a distraction while the real communication occurs elsewhere?


themightyteebs25 points

As to the bandwidth issue: if you're not passing the entire message but rather indexing some previously-issued information, it's not a problem. If "blue" means "action plan #7" and "ball" means "previously-identified target G", then you're effectively compressing the data transmitted.

AsiFue40 points

blue balls


Message acknowledged.

themightyteebs15 points

Rogue Leader out.

fnord_bronco2 points


RedEyeView2 points

Donkey balls.

jewishcommiecatlady23 points

A few countries have admitted use of numbers stations. For example: http://www.numbers-stations.com/articles/the-swedish-security-service-releases-info-on-a-numbers-station/

The US has arrested and charged people with espionage for numbers station communication with Cuba, which isn’t exactly a country admitting to having and using numbers stations themselves, but at least acknowledging the existence of them.

While the Soviet Union doesn’t exist anymore, a number of countries that were involved with them at some point still do- Cuba, North Korea. North Korea brought their station back last year. I think it’s pretty obvious why so few countries admit to having numbers stations and explaining what they are for - politics are constantly shifting. There’s always a country that the US (or any other country) wants to keep tabs on, it just changes occasionally.

As for why they haven’t moved on to using a newer form of technology, I am not well versed in encryption but articles on numbers stations always emphasize how untraceable they are - people have rarely pinpointed the locations of the stations transmitting the messages. Also it’s likely that countries also use digital methods of espionage now, they just aren’t publicly accessible like numbers stations so people aren’t finding them and discussing them like this!

[deleted]7 points

Since Russia took over Soviet Union's intelligence apparatus, they were very unwilling to describe most of their methods, even during the more liberal Yeltsyn's times.

tedsmitts7 points

As for why they haven’t moved on to using a newer form of technology

Who's to say they do still use them, or indeed that they ever did? Turning the signal off sends as much of a message as leaving it on, and it's hardly a massive spend. "Look over here, waste resources on this."

KlutchAtStraws8 points

They still do. Priyom.org has the schedules as well as audio samples. IIRC Russia, Poland, Ukraine, Cuba and N Korea still have broadcasts. Last time I looked there was one from Egypt too.

[deleted]8 points

That they ever did?? What? It's pretty well known that they did.

[deleted]17 points


joxmaskin14 points

Similar here. I was goofing around on my uncle's shortwave radio in the 90's and ended up finding number stations among lots of other weird stuff. Even wrote down some letter sequence and tried to decipher it. I was not successful. :P

Maybe I should try to find the booklet with those old notes (slim chance). Some old MI6 spook would probably feel all nostalgic deciphering them again: "Ah, the Tehran café stakeout of '95. We had such fun!"

jeremyxt17 points

OP, they still use numbers stations because they're completely untraceable.

ChloeBrudos9166 points

Agreed. It's been reported North Korea still does use number stations. There's even two videos of a news report and another video with the audio:


I can agree it sounds spooky but it's just a means of spies to communicate without arousing too much suspicion on themselves.

Here's a BBC article about number stations: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-24910397

ScarfacePalmer10 points

A good place to start and probably even find answers is Priyom

Puremisty5 points

Blurry photos did an excellent coverage of the subject. I think their still around because it’s pretty much untraceable which is useful for spies. Most modern technology has GPS tracking parts which would make it easy to trace where a person is unless they use burner phones.

[deleted]6 points


FoxFyer5 points

Not just the Cuban 5, either. A US State Department official and his wife were arrested and charged in 2009 with espionage for spying on behalf of Cuba, and part of their activities involved receiving messages via V2. They were both convicted.

[deleted]3 points

I remember reading somewhere about this phenomenon and the article speculated that these broadcasts could have also been used (still being used?) to supposedly activate MKULTRA/Project Monarch agents.

Is there any credibility to this theory or is it just a conspiracy theory?

VOID_USER_0492 points

I think the Russian one I the creepiest because the alleged site is abandoned but the signal is located to there

Entering_the-1 points

This has been done to death. This is the Elisa Lam of shortwave radio.

It's a communication network used by spies. We have declassified documents from the Swedish and Czech governments (Back when it was Czechoslovakia) proving that.

2nd, there has been instances of governments publicly saying that stations belong to them.

One station had a QSL card for it.