THE CONET NUMBERS PROJECT (19??)
One night ten years ago, sanitary on a college radio program here in Los Angeles, clinic I was treated to an entire hour’s worth of possibly the spookiest audio I’d ever heard. It consisted solely of human voices captured on incredibly static-laden shortwave channels, reading nothing but repeated passages of letter/number combinations. Some of the recordings were in English — some in Russian, others in various Eastern European tongues.
When I turned the radio on, I’d just gotten in my car after a night shift at the video store where I worked at the time. I’d missed the opening few minutes of the program, and the second the radio came on, I sat transfixed, trying to figure out just what it was I was listening to. For twenty minutes, I sat there, motionless, trying to come up with an explanation for some of the strangest audio I’d ever been present for. After a long passage of these recordings, the DJ came on the mic and announced that he’d been playing selections from a box set called “The Conet Numbers Project”, a collection of shortwave recordings detailing the activities of “numbers stations”, which were operated by the intelligence community surrounding various Cold War superpowers. Wikipedia sez:
Numbers stations are shortwave radio stations of uncertain origin. They generally broadcast voices reading streams of numbers, words, letters (sometimes using a spelling alphabet), tunes or Morse code. The voices that can be heard on these stations are often mechanically generated. They are in a wide variety of languages, and the voices are usually women’s, though sometimes men’s or children’s voices are used. Evidence supports popular assumptions that the broadcasts are channels of communication used to send messages to spies. This has not been publicly acknowledged by any government that may operate a numbers station, but in one case, Cuban numbers station espionage has been publicly prosecuted in a United States federal court. Numbers stations appear and disappear over time (although some follow regular schedules), and their overall activity has increased slightly since the early 1990s. This increase suggests that, as spy-related phenomena, they were not unique to the Cold War.
According to the notes of The Conet Project, numbers stations have been reported since World War I. If accurate, this would make numbers stations among the earliest radio broadcasts. It has long been speculated, and was argued in court in one case, that these stations operate as a simple and foolproof method for government agencies to communicate with spies working undercover. According to this theory, the messages are encrypted with a one-time pad, to avoid any risk of decryption by the enemy.
High frequency radio signals transmitted at relatively low power can travel around the world under ideal propagation conditions, which are affected by local RF noise levels, weather, season, and sunspots, and can then be received with a properly tuned antenna of adequate size, and a superb receiver. However, spies often have to work only with available hand held receivers, sometimes under difficult local conditions, and in all seasons and sunspot cycles. Only very large transmitters, perhaps up to 500,000 watts, are guaranteed to get through to nearly any basement-dwelling spy, nearly any place on earth, nearly all of the time. Some governments may not need a numbers station with global coverage if they only send spies to nearby countries.
Although no broadcaster or government has acknowledged transmitting the numbers, a 1998 article in The Daily Telegraph quoted a spokesperson for the Department of Trade and Industry (the government department that, at that time, regulated radio broadcasting in the United Kingdom) as saying, “These [numbers stations] are what you suppose they are. People shouldn’t be mystified by them. They are not for, shall we say, public consumption.”
Whatever the case may be, this shit is genuinely unnerving, and I challenge you to listen to it for even just a few minutes without getting the chills.