Thursday, November 13, 2003

You Didnít Just See That




For more than 30 years the Shortwave radio spectrum has been used by the worlds intelligence agencies to transmit secret messages. These messages are transmitted by hundreds of ìNumbers Stations.î


I didnít know this until a few months ago, when my wife brought me home a printed out PDF version of the Conet Project Book. Itís a fascinating concept, using a code based on a quantum algorithm that is unbreakable unless you know the specific number sheet being used. Because even if you sit down and crunch through all the possible combinations even in a known Number Code you end up with at minimum, two distinct answers. Just like Schrodingerís Cat. And each code is used only once and is unreplicable.

Perhaps this is too technical an idea to wrap your mind around. Maybe youíre sitting there reading this, saying to yourself, ìSpies using an old fangled unbreakable code, sounds like a Tom Clancy Novel.î

This is exactly my point.


Shortwave Numbers Stations are a perfect method of anonymous, one way communication. Spies located anywhere in the world can be communicated to by their masters via small, locally available, and unmodified Shortwave receivers. The encryption system used by Numbers Stations, known as a ìone time padî is unbreakable. Combine this with the fact that it is almost impossible to track down the message recipients once they are inserted into the enemy country, it becomes clear just how powerful the Numbers Station system is.


Various governments have been using this system of low frequency radio communication since the Cold War. Even today, in the age of digital broadband and supercomputer laptops, these Number Stations, which are only little more advanced than Marconi and Tesslaís own radio experiments, are still in use. Not only that, since the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the end of the Cold War, use these Number Stations have not decreased. It has increased.

The most disturbing fact about Number Stations is that only one Government even admits to using them, The Czech Republic. Everyone else, from the US, to China, Russia, Britain and most mainland European nations does use them. But why do they use them? And why donít they admit to using them? In Great Britain, itís technically illegal to even listen to them, despite the fact that they broadcast on common low frequencies, audible to anybody with a shortwave radio.

Since the purpose of the Number Stations is unknown, we can only speculate as to just what sort of Information is being gathered and disseminated over them. And why have they become more used after the Cold War than during? I could screw on my tinfoil hat and speculate until the Moon turns to green cheese but it wouldnít get me closer to the truth (something Moulder should have realized around season five of the X-Files: the Mystery is always more intriguing than the truth, no matter how far out that truth really is).

My wife and I have been discussing this off and on for the last few months, as itís really a creepy and strange modern mystery (fans of Wilco will know what Iím talking about, as they sampled these eerie transmissions on their album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot).

Iíd like to think that it isnít part of the US Governmentís increasing stagger towards a Police State. That the mailman is really just listening to a walkman, not keeping an eye on me or anyone else. But then I read about the latest attempt by Bush to install his Total Information Awareness plan and I canít help but reach for the tinfoil.

Once, while driving along I 295 in Maryland with my uncle, who works for the National Security Agency, we passed the NSA campus. We happened to be on an elevated ramp and so had an unobstructed view of the rooftops of the compound. I spotted a strange antenna cluster protruding from the top of one building and pointed it out to my wife, as it resembled several pictured in the Conet Project Book.

My uncle looked at us both and said, ìYou didnít just see that.î

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