your thoughts on "number stations"

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brötchen
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your thoughts on "number stations"

Postby brötchen » Sat Oct 16, 2010 11:36 pm UTC

so maybe you have heard about the so called "number stations", short wave radio stations that do nothing except sending out numbers or letters (some times in a human voice, sometimes in a synthetic human voice and sometimes in Morse code), apparently the most common theory about the reason for those transmissions is that its a way for intelligence agencies to give orders to spies but to me that just seems stupid considering they could just send their instructions over the internet... I mean these days its a lot less suspicious to own a laptop or a smartphone than it is to own a shortwave radio let alone listen to a short wave radio all the time. the only benefit from sending it out via short wave could be that there is no way to find out who the reviver is but by using proxys you could practicably solve this problem without going through the trouble of operating a huge radio station .
so what do you thin is the purpose of those wired/creepy transmissions ?

Excuse my terrible English. English is not my native language.

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badwiz
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Re: your thoughts on "number stations"

Postby badwiz » Sat Oct 16, 2010 11:48 pm UTC

I have never heard of a "number station". Are you sure they exist and are not urban myth?

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My german is poor, but is your screen name brötchen translate as 'baby bread"? Or muffin or morning toast? That sounds more reasonable.

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Re: your thoughts on "number stations"

Postby thoughtfully » Sat Oct 16, 2010 11:52 pm UTC

Shortwave radios can be very compact, similiar in appearance to a standard radio, and work when there's no free Wifi to boot :)
or the nearest access point is hundreds of kilometers away, etc..
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Re: your thoughts on "number stations"

Postby BlackSails » Sat Oct 16, 2010 11:55 pm UTC

Its also much harder to trace who is listening to a radio signal, as opposed to tracing who accesses a particular website.

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Re: your thoughts on "number stations"

Postby poxic » Sat Oct 16, 2010 11:57 pm UTC

Yes, they exist. No, they aren't an urban legend. Yes, they are generally accepted as transmitting intelligence. Why number stations, instead of internet/whatever? Probably because these stations were cutting edge when they first appeared around-or-after WW1 (mid-1910s). Once that infrastructure was established, there was no reason to stop using it.

Edit: or, y'know, as BlackSails said.
Last edited by poxic on Sat Oct 16, 2010 11:59 pm UTC, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: your thoughts on "number stations"

Postby Mr_Rose » Sat Oct 16, 2010 11:58 pm UTC

It's less suspicious to have a laptop in modern cities, sure, and in other places well-supplied with internets.
Outside of those limited places, not so much.
Plus there's the fact that short wave radios are much, much easier to conceal than a laptop and consume vastly less power; IIRC, you can build a working receiver powered entirely by the signal itself under the right circumstances.

Also, if "everyone knows" the number stations are sending out messages to spies, it keeps "everyone" paranoid about who exactly is receiving these coded messages, which can be a form of subtle attack in itself. Especially if at least some of them are gibberish, or transmitting cosmic ray counts or something.
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Re: your thoughts on "number stations"

Postby brötchen » Sun Oct 17, 2010 12:02 am UTC

well i get that ther is no way to find out who is reciving the massages but still in most situations there would be faster easier ways to safely get data to some one.. i men slowly reading numbers is just about the slowest way of comunciation imaginable..
@badwiz
yes i'm pretty sure they exist. apparently it isn't even hard to pic them up and there are lots of recordings available on the net, but i cant try to pic them up my self beaus i don't own a shortwave radio

ps. my screen name would best translate to bun (the fact that i'm using this screen name is related to an in-joke so don't bother trying to make sens of it ^^ )

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Re: your thoughts on "number stations"

Postby poxic » Sun Oct 17, 2010 12:16 am UTC

Sie wohnen denn in Deutschland, oder Osterreich, oder Schweiz, oder ...?

I doubt that number stations would be used to send urgent messages, for the reasons you've given. Slow, for one thing, plus there is uncertain security and no built-in way to acknowledge that the message was received. Still, it must be useful for some things or else the stations wouldn't exist.

/pardon my crappy Deutsch
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Re: your thoughts on "number stations"

Postby brötchen » Sun Oct 17, 2010 12:26 am UTC

i dont thin the security is verry uncertain. apperently they are using one-time-pad encryption which, if used right, is mathmaticaly proven to be unbrakable but reqiers a "password" thats just as long as the transmitted data set.

poxic wrote:Sie wohnen denn in Deutschland, oder Osterreich, oder Schweiz, oder ...?

Ja, in Deutschland. ^^

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Re: your thoughts on "number stations"

Postby BlackSails » Sun Oct 17, 2010 1:16 am UTC

You dont need to send the entire urgent message. The spy might just listen for 5 minutes at the right time each day, and hear the prearranged signal for "GTFO" or "continue with mission"

Obviously, thats not the case if they are using a one time pad, but I think that would be unnecessary when 99.99% of the transmissions are garbage.

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Re: your thoughts on "number stations"

Postby Izawwlgood » Sun Oct 17, 2010 1:21 am UTC

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Re: your thoughts on "number stations"

Postby frezik » Sun Oct 17, 2010 2:08 am UTC

Behold, the sound that will end the Earth.

What amazes me about UVB-76 is that background conversations can be heard, suggesting that it's a microphone setup next to a buzzer. Which seems like such a Russian way of doing things.

My theory on UVB-76 is that it was setup during the Cold War by some General, who forgot to tell anyone else about it. Standing orders are mechanically followed to rotate in new staff, and it shows up as a line item on some sub-sub-sub-department of the Russian military.

Anyway, I try not to bother thinking about numbers stations too much. There's nothing I can do about them, it's unlikely that we'll get a definitive answer on any one of them, and they're only direct purpose in my life is to creep me the frell out. Along that route lies madness, or at least a lot of lost sleep. Cognitive dissonance can be healthy sometimes.
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Re: your thoughts on "number stations"

Postby xkcdfan » Sun Oct 17, 2010 2:30 am UTC

As to the question of why they use number stations instead of the Internet... how do you know that it's instead of, rather than in addition to? Perhaps super spies in urban areas do use the Internet, or cell phones or whatever, and the number stations are kept in use for people in areas where they can't access those things.

Half the domain squatters we see could actually be fronts for undercover government organizations.

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Re: your thoughts on "number stations"

Postby Solt » Sun Oct 17, 2010 2:51 am UTC

The United States government more or less owns the internet. That traffic which doesn't directly pass through our territory, we actually have purpose built submarines to tap into. Combine that with the fact that the NSA is enormous, the world's largest employer of mathematicians, and probably has the world's most powerful supercomputers... if I were a foreign country I wouldn't trust the internet either. That which can be accomplished securely over such an internet (essentially, broadcasts that you suspect the enemy to be reading) can be accomplished just as securely but with greater convenience over shortwave.
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Re: your thoughts on "number stations"

Postby frezik » Sun Oct 17, 2010 2:53 am UTC

Plus, a lot of these were setup before the Internet was anywhere near as widespread as it is now.
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Re: your thoughts on "number stations"

Postby Izawwlgood » Sun Oct 17, 2010 4:55 am UTC

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Re: your thoughts on "number stations"

Postby Solt » Sun Oct 17, 2010 5:01 am UTC

Although it kind of makes you wonder why no one is jamming these transmissions with white noise. If their recipients are really as deeply undercover as this setup implies, jamming everything should really mess them up. I suppose jamming of this sort is illegal under international agreements?
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Re: your thoughts on "number stations"

Postby BlackSails » Sun Oct 17, 2010 5:13 am UTC

Solt wrote:Although it kind of makes you wonder why no one is jamming these transmissions with white noise. If their recipients are really as deeply undercover as this setup implies, jamming everything should really mess them up. I suppose jamming of this sort is illegal under international agreements?


Not illiegal, just sort of pointless. Most of them are probably just garbage, and besides, how do you know if you are jamming the CIA, SAVAK, or even your own station that you just dont have the clearance to know about?

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Re: your thoughts on "number stations"

Postby Izawwlgood » Sun Oct 17, 2010 6:05 am UTC

And why jam it? Why not just fill the airwaves with even more clutter and noise?
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Re: your thoughts on "number stations"

Postby EdgarJPublius » Sun Oct 17, 2010 6:37 am UTC

Anyway, the main advantages of number stations over other forms of covert communication is
1. as mentioned, it's impossible to determine who is actually receiving a given transmission. This is also a good argument against jamming as you don't know if you are jamming yourself, an ally or even a 'dead-hand' type nuclear failsafe. It's theorized that some form of gentleman's agreement exists to prevent jamming of numbers stations, although there are also a few recorded instances of suspected attempts to jam numbers stations.
Mobile transmitters, such as on aircraft, ships or submarines can also make it difficult to determine who is sending messages.

2. Also on the jamming front, it's very easy to just jump channels avoid jamming, or add more power to the signal. Also, since much of what is transmitted by any given station could easily be filler not intended for anyone, you have to jam each transmitter continuously.

3. It's practically impossible to gain any information from listening to a numbers station unless you are the intended recipient (or have know the intended recipients codes and tune-in times) since the message could be intended for virtually anyone, and one time pad encryption makes it impossible to tell what message is being transmitted, or even when a message is being transmitted as opposed to random 'filler' garbage. If you identify an internet communication channel however, you can 'listen in' and gather lots of information without necessarily revealing that the channel has been breached.

4. Shortwave transmitters are cheap, and receivers are even cheaper. Even if you communicate with agents via some other means, there's pretty much no drawback to keeping numbers stations around as a back-up.

5. Shortwave receivers are simple, disposable commodities. Just look back at the recent spy case where an intelligence ring was busted up in part because of the constant requirement to provide tech-support for the agents' laptops in the field. With a number's station, no technical knowledge is required and there's not much that can go wrong, even if something does fail, you can always just dump the receiver and buy a new one. A dumped laptop or even cell phone however has to be thoroughly and methodically cleansed of evidence before it could be safely disposed of, and you can't exactly take a laptop full of super-secret spy shit to the geek squad.

6. The internet and phone service aren't available everywhere. Sure, enemy spies in the U.S. or Europe might be able to get along fine passing around intel by phone or internet, but Western spy agencies are more concerned about places like Afghanistan, where internet and cell service are scarce, and possession of a laptop or phone would be pretty conspicuous. Even agents in relatively more developed parts of the world such as Russia, China or North Korea, may find it difficult to have constant access to phone or internet service. And conversely, agents from these parts of the world won't have as much experience with technology as someone who grew up with ubiquitous technology in the west and will require more technical support for their laptops and cell phones (see point five)

There's no reason that numbers stations would necessarily be the only method of communication with agents in the field, but for the low price, you can't beat their simplicity, ubiquity, anonymity and security.
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Re: your thoughts on "number stations"

Postby jmorgan3 » Sun Oct 17, 2010 7:31 am UTC

Izawwlgood wrote:And why jam it? Why not just fill the airwaves with even more clutter and noise?

Isn't that the definition of jamming?
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Re: your thoughts on "number stations"

Postby Izawwlgood » Sun Oct 17, 2010 7:36 am UTC

Touche.
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Re: your thoughts on "number stations"

Postby Solt » Sun Oct 17, 2010 9:06 am UTC

Izawwlgood wrote:Touche.
lol...


EdgarJPublius wrote:This is also a good argument against jamming as you don't know if you are jamming yourself, an ally or even a 'dead-hand' type nuclear failsafe.
EdgarJPublius wrote:Mobile transmitters, such as on aircraft, ships or submarines can also make it difficult to determine who is sending messages.


Actually it's quite easy to find the source if you want to. Triangulation.
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Re: your thoughts on "number stations"

Postby EdgarJPublius » Sun Oct 17, 2010 5:26 pm UTC

Solt wrote:
Izawwlgood wrote:Touche.
lol...


EdgarJPublius wrote:This is also a good argument against jamming as you don't know if you are jamming yourself, an ally or even a 'dead-hand' type nuclear failsafe.
EdgarJPublius wrote:Mobile transmitters, such as on aircraft, ships or submarines can also make it difficult to determine who is sending messages.


Actually it's quite easy to find the source if you want to. Triangulation.


It would be very difficult to triangulate the source of an intermittent, moving signal, and even if you could, knowing where the mobile transmitter is at any given moment does not translate into knowing who owns the transmitter.

It's also possible to operate a stationary numbers station relatively covertly in a foreign nation, so even knowing where a stationary transmitter is located does not necessarily tell you who is operating it.

Thirdly, knowing who is operating a a given station doesn't tell you it's purpose or who they are sending message too. even if you know the transmitter is in Russia and have gone through a comprehensive internal audit to make sure none of your domestic or allied intelligence agencies are operating that particular station in Russia, it could still be part of a nuclear fail-safe (one of the suspected purposes of UVB-76) and jamming it might be considered the opening stages of a preemptive nuclear strike.
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Re: your thoughts on "number stations"

Postby BlackSails » Sun Oct 17, 2010 5:49 pm UTC

Also, doesnt triangulation only work if there is a single, point source? If I have 3 transmitters, how do you triangulate that?

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Re: your thoughts on "number stations"

Postby Technical Ben » Sun Oct 17, 2010 5:55 pm UTC

I'd hate to be an American cop.
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Re: your thoughts on "number stations"

Postby StNowhere » Sun Oct 17, 2010 11:41 pm UTC

EdgarJPublius wrote:
Solt wrote:
Izawwlgood wrote:Touche.
lol...


EdgarJPublius wrote:This is also a good argument against jamming as you don't know if you are jamming yourself, an ally or even a 'dead-hand' type nuclear failsafe.
EdgarJPublius wrote:Mobile transmitters, such as on aircraft, ships or submarines can also make it difficult to determine who is sending messages.


Actually it's quite easy to find the source if you want to. Triangulation.


It would be very difficult to triangulate the source of an intermittent, moving signal, and even if you could, knowing where the mobile transmitter is at any given moment does not translate into knowing who owns the transmitter.

It's also possible to operate a stationary numbers station relatively covertly in a foreign nation, so even knowing where a stationary transmitter is located does not necessarily tell you who is operating it.

Thirdly, knowing who is operating a a given station doesn't tell you it's purpose or who they are sending message too. even if you know the transmitter is in Russia and have gone through a comprehensive internal audit to make sure none of your domestic or allied intelligence agencies are operating that particular station in Russia, it could still be part of a nuclear fail-safe (one of the suspected purposes of UVB-76) and jamming it might be considered the opening stages of a preemptive nuclear strike.



All this is very true, but for some of the other reasons you mentioned (near-perfect security w/ OTP being the biggest), a lot of governments don't even bother trying to hide the sources with mobile transmitters or covert locations, other than to put them on military bases where civilians (and, hopefully, enemy spies) can't get to them. A well-known station that went dark a few years ago was tracked by amateurs to RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus, and no one really bothers to say "Nuh uh! It's in Turkey!" (it'd be funny if they did). Since anyone with a shortwave receiver and a lot of free time can listen in as often as they want, and as you said, knowing where a station is tells you nothing about what it's saying, it's just easier to put up a stationary, high-power source that can be used over a large area. All you do, basically, is not broadcast a call sign like "You're listening to UVB-76, 'The Buzzer!', playing all the hits, as long as they're monotone!"


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