The Mysterious Numerical Radio Stations

In some recesses of the radio spectrum, you can listen to strange broadcasts that consist entirely of people reading numbers. For years, people have speculated about the purpose of these unlicensed, unidentified radio stations. The most obvious possibility is espionage. NPR consulted Mark Stout, a spycraft historian, on the subject:

He tells NPR's Guy Raz that the stations are unlicensed, which makes it hard to figure out where they're broadcasting from. And the mystery only deepens: No government has ever officially admitted to using numbers stations. No one's really sure when the stations began broadcasting, though they're most likely a Cold War-era invention.

And, Stout says, no matter how advanced modern computer cryptography is, good old shortwave is often the best option for getting messages to spies in the field.

"Because [a message] can be broadcast over such an enormous area, you can be transmitting to an agent who may be thousands of miles away," he says. And, he adds, computer communications almost always leave traces.

"It's really hard to erase data out of your hard drive or off a memory stick," he says. "But all you need here is a shortwave radio and pencil and paper."


http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=128586766 via reddit | Photo by Flickr user maliciousmonkey used under Creative Commons license

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Their "Numbers stations are unlicensed, which makes it hard to figure out where they're broadcasting from." is really a bunch of malarkey. Doesn't take a whole lot of smarts to DF a transmitter on HF. Some years ago the Canadians had a Huff Duff (HFDF) site on Bermuda. Don't know if it's still there.

Why does the post headline have "Mysterious Numerical Radio Stations"? The link properly calls them numbers stations. Would be nice if article leads weren't made up of BS. There's no logical reason for doing so.
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@Alex (again): It was NPR that did the segment as well...the link to the story is at the bottom of the above link, "music by the numbers stations"
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@Alex: I don't know about sterolab, but Wilco's album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was named after a snippet of someone saying "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" from one of these number stations that appears in one of their songs (can't remember which one). A podcast I listen to did a segment on it, but I can't remember which one that was either.
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