Dark Side Of The
Shortwave Radio Band

By Jason Walsh
Wired News
Shortwave radio bands, ignored by commercial broadcasters because of their low fidelity, have long been home to government activity -- whether for national broadcasts such as the BBC World Service, Voice of America and Radio France International, or propaganda broadcasts from the likes of Radio Havana or the U.S.-backed Radio Free Iraq.
Meanwhile, for the last 30 years an altogether more curious kind of international station has been noted on the airwaves.
Across the world, high-powered transmitters with global reach are broadcasting seemingly meaningless strings of numbers or letters, along with a lot of buzzing and beeping noises.
Some have speculated that the signals from these "numbers stations" are operated by drug cartels. However, it's more likely they're run by intelligence agencies, as tacitly acknowledged by the British government, and accidentally by the Cubans.
As shortwave is abandoned by public broadcasters in favor of satellite and the internet, these curious stations continue to broadcast, seemingly unaffected by the end of the Cold War or the development of new technologies. But even listening to the signals is illegal in some countries.
A subculture of obsessive listeners has built up around the stations, despite the fact that they have little hope of ever decoding the signals.
Such is the curiosity value of these oddball transmissions that they have had an impact on popular culture and have been featured in the movie Vanilla Sky and music by Wilco, Porcupine Tree and Stereolab. A U.K.-based label, Irdial Discs, released a four-CD recording of various stations, an odd soundtrack approaching conceptual art.
No government has ever acknowledged a numbers station, but the British Department of Trade and Industry told London's Daily Telegraph in 1997 that there was no mystery and that the stations were not "intended for public consumption."
Spanish-language broadcasts of five-digit numbers targeted at North America are believed to emanate from Cuba. The location was given away by the accidental simulcasting of audio from Radio Havana Cuba. Of course, it's also been suggested the signal is broadcast by the CIA, and the technical problem a disinformation ruse rather than a genuine error.
Number station signals are not low-powered, which would suggest in-the-field broadcasts by clandestine operatives. Rather, they come from powerful transmitters with global reach, requiring massive masts that are not easily hidden.
Spectrographic analysis of the signals has revealed that modulated data bursts are sometimes contained within the transmissions, and sub-audible noises are a regular occurrence.
Though clandestine, some stations have been used by security operatives. On Sept. 22, 2001, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency's senior Cuba analyst, Ana Montes, was arrested. She was known to be receiving messages via Cuban numbers stations.
In the United Kingdom, professor Robin Pearson, who spied for East Germany, received one-way radio communications from his Stasi handlers from 1982 onward.
The conflict in Iraq has spawned at least two stations: E03A, operated from England, probably by MI6; and E25, broadcast from Egypt.
One of the most intriguing stations transmits at 4625 KHz. The station has broadcast the same signal for over 20 years: a buzzing tone, repeated 25 times a minute, which has earned it the nickname "the buzzer." The mast is located 30 kilometers northwest of Moscow.
Apart from the buzzing, 4625 kHz has only twice broadcast voice messages. Why the frequency is being reserved is a mystery.
One avid listener, a shortwave enthusiast who served in the Canadian military, suggested "it is a last-reserve frequency reserved for extreme emergencies, such as just prior to the potential outbreak of nuclear conflict."
Paul Beaumont, a member of the British-based Enigma 2000, a group dedicated to analyzing numbers traffic, suggested the buzzer is "something to do with missiles -- possibly a timepiece."
Kevin Nice, editor of the United Kingdom's Short Wave Magazine, is baffled by the interest in the buzzer.
"It could be a data modem," he said. "There are all sorts of odd noises on shortwave. It could be any number of things. The interest in it specifically is bizarre."
Beaumont said the broadcasts are fascinating, even if listeners will never break the codes. Serious listeners construct schedules and tune into a plethora of stations.
"There are definite schedules and signal characteristics which can be identified," he said. "You'll never decipher a message, but you can perform traffic analysis on them."
British military intelligence is clearly aware of the James Bond cachet of things like numbers stations. Perhaps they are simply recruiting tools.
Take, for example, the recruitment advertisements in the left-of-center Guardian newspaper, which exploit the secret-agent image to hire staff who are likely to spend their entire careers desk-bound. One recent ad for a cleaner featured curious copy:
"Part-time cleaner/domestic support £16903 pro-rata. Some of the work we do makes front page news. Some of it remains strictly behind the scenes. But whether you read all about it or not, we play a vital role in helping protect the UK from threats such as crime, drugs and terrorism. We want you to go under the covers in our London Office and ensure it's clean and tidy. Duties aren't set in stone, so you should be flexible and willing to lend a hand wherever we need it."
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From Jim Mortellaro
There is only one comment I would make. When I built my first crystal radio set and heard short wave broadcasts way back in 1954, I heard these broadcasts. I've heard them since. Fifty years. Fifty years.
Most of these stations are always there. I've heard them largely on HF, high frequency, between about 50 meters through about 90 meters. Many of these are transmitting data of some kind. Many sound like the old radio teletype except for the data bursts. RTTY it was called and Hams used to use that mode of transmission.
Yes, they've increased since then, but why the comment "The _DARK_ Side ... ?" What they are is presently unknown for the most part. But not 20 years. More like fifty years. And why make such a big deal of it? Governments throughout the globe use HF for transmission of information in lieu of satellite transmission. If it were so secretive, I seriously doubt the use of HF where literally everyone with a short wave receiver may hear them and these days, many may make attempts to decipher and analyze them.
I seriously doubt these powerful HF signals contain clandestine information for the reasons above. Every one may hear them. Many may analyze the content. Why bother?
What are they? Speculating, news agencies, government information services, data transmissions, et al. Dark Side? Maybe. But not terribly likely.



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