In A Nutshell
Although their purpose has never been confirmed, unlicensed “numbers stations” have been broadcasting on shortwave AM radio since at least the Cold War. Unlike digital communications that leave a record, these low-tech transmissions are perfect for sending unbreakable, encrypted messages to spies who don’t want to be tracked. One of the most eerie stations, formerly known as “UVB-76,” transmitted beeps and buzzes continuously from Russia for years, almost completely unchanged throughout decades of Russian political upheaval. Then suddenly in 2010, silence. After a few months of unpredictable broadcasts, the station’s call sign was changed to MDZhB and the eerie broadcasts continued.
The Whole Bushel
Although their purpose has never been confirmed by a government or anyone else, unlicensed “numbers stations” have been broadcasting on shortwave AM radio since at least the Cold War and possibly as early as World War I. They’re bizarre broadcasts that don’t seem to make any sense: beeps and buzzes, a voice counting or reciting letters, sometimes short bursts of music. Despite the evolution of technology, you can still find these stations broadcasting in many languages. Experts in espionage have suggested that numbers stations are a way for intelligence agencies to transmit information to agents in territories where they can’t risk two-way communication. Sometimes, they’re aimed at embassies or residencies.
It’s a secure, indecipherable way to send a message. “This system is completely secure because the messages can’t be tracked, the recipient could be anywhere,” Akin Fernandez, creator of the Conet Project, a comprehensive archive of numbers stations, told the BBC. “It is easy. You just send the spies to a country and get them to buy a radio. They know where to tune and when.” A former officer of the British intelligence organization, Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), agrees.
Unlike digital communications that leave a record, these low-tech transmissions are perfect for sending unbreakable, encrypted messages to spies who don’t want to be tracked. They use a one-time pad, an encryption key that changes randomly each time a message is sent. The receiver decrypts the message with a matching key. It doesn’t matter if anyone else listens. They won’t be able to crack the code because it changes with each message.
There have been anonymous leaks of arrests made of people who had shortwave radios and one-time pads on them. In 1989, the United Kingdom arrested a Czech spy when his malfunctioning equipment transmitted into flats occupied by people not involved with his operation. According to the former GCHQ officer, Romanian broadcasts completely stopped when Nicolae Ceausescu was overthrown and executed in 1989. A Russian spy ring that was exposed in America in 2010 may have also received transmissions from numbers stations. But no one will officially confirm or deny the stories.
One of the most eerie stations, formerly known as “UVB-76,” is nicknamed “The Buzzer.” Once isolated in a forest north of Moscow, UVB-76 transmitted beeps and then buzzes continuously for years, almost completely unchanged throughout decades of Russian political upheaval. From the Cold War to Mikhail Gorbachev to the collapse of the Soviet Union to Boris Yeltsin and even to the ascendancy of Vladimir Putin, UVB-76 continued to transmit its indecipherable signal. It’s believed that when the buzzes stop, it’s a signal that the station is about to broadcast a command code of letters and numbers. Once the message is sent, the buzzer restarts.
Then suddenly on June 5, 2010, silence. After a few months of unpredictable broadcasts, things got really strange. On August 25, 2010, the station went silent again. But all of a sudden, there were sounds like shuffles and knocks that suggested someone had entered the broadcasting room. But still, nothing decipherable.
In early September, the broadcasts were frequently punctuated with recorded bursts of music. It sounded like Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Little Swans.” Finally, on September 7, 2010, at 8:48 PM in Moscow, an unidentified man announced a new call sign, MDZhB, for the station. Then a series of numbers and letters was broadcast before eventually returning to mostly buzzing.
No one on the outside seems to know for sure what the purpose of UVB-76 is. JM, a former European official, believes the station sends encrypted orders to the military within Russia instead of to spies outside the country. A young production engineer in Florida thinks JM is right. He also explains the unpredictable broadcasts of 2010 as sound engineers upgrading or calibrating the equipment. The station is such an obsession with some listeners that music albums and bands have been named after UVB-76.
There’s one more enigma about the station. After all the commotion in 2010, its physical location appeared to move, coinciding with a reorganization of the Russian military. Some people believe the station is now somewhere around Pskov, a Russian town near Estonia. But, as with all things UVB-76, no one knows for sure.
Show Me The Proof
BBC News: The spooky world of the ‘numbers stations’
NPR: Numbers Stations: Mystery Over The Airwaves
Wired: Inside The Russian Short Wave Radio Enigma