What are these number stations? And why are they called "number stations" in the first place?
Many shortwave listeners have stumbled across strange transmissions from time to time of a mechanized female or male voice doing nothing but reading off blocks of numbers in various languages, some play musical clips as an "intro". I've noticed that most listeners accidently stumble into them, as I had at when I first heard the "Lincolnshire Poacher", the first actual number station I heard. Regardless of the method of reception, they are quite a startle when you run into them.
What is the purpose of these transmissions?
There is no real "offical" explanation for the purpose or content of these stations. The US Government has stated in writing that they are aware of these transmissions, but won't elaborate on. A FOIA (freedom of information act request) was sent to the government but then denied. In the United Kingdom, the government passed a silencing act to reduce/eliminate discussion of such transmissions that possibly may be originating from the UK. There is some good evidence supporting that a well-heard number stations known as the "Lincolnshire Poacher" is transmitting from a RAF site in Cyprus.
But to get to the core of the question, all that exists at the moment is speculation. Number stations are widely believed to be in use by espionage agencies as a way to send information to agents on the field. This may indeed be the case, but probably does not account for all transmissions. Some of these transmissions may deal with smuggling operations, drug trafficking, rebel activity in South America and abroad, sensitive military operations, (although it seems that some of the more modern terrorist operatives have been using satellite phone) or even sending weather forecasts but encoding them so the proper recipients recieve it. Also, there seems to be HF antennas on embassays around the world, perhaps some number stations originate from them, however embassy communications have been known to use other modes of radio transmitting and satellite technology. Among these speculative possibilities, it is still believed that the well-known and higher powered number stations are used by governments to send messages to spies working abroad using the one-time pad method. In the book "The Spy who Got Away" by David Wise, the focus of the book being the Edward Lee Howard defection case where Edward defected himself as well as secret information to the KGB during the "spy wars" of the 1980's and also the infamous "year of the spy" where the CIA had lost nearly all of it's agents in Moscow due to information leaking from CIA and from defectors going to the KGB. In the book, David Wise discusses how during CIA training, Edward Lee Howard was taught how to decrypt encrypted messages that came from radio signals.
This is an excerpt out of the Washington Post regarding the convicted Cuban spy Ana Montes and her use of HF radio in espionage
"Agents found that Montes communicated with Cuba by high-frequency, encrypted transmissions that she picked up on a shortwave radio. She sent information back by using pay phones in Northwest Washington and Bethesda to transmit similar encoded information to an electronic pager number."
You can read the full article here
What frequencies and what equipment is necessary to listen?
I won't go into tech details here, there are plenty of good sites on there that provide info on the tech scope of things. All you really need a SW radio capable of recieving upper side band, I use a portable reciever known as the RadioShack DX-398, now discontinued but is also found as a Sangean ATS-909. Depending on your area, you can hear number stations just with the telescoping whip, but for best reception your going to want an external antenna. More number stations are heard by listeners in Western Europe, if your in North America, good ones to look for is V2 a spanish station, E5 "The Counting Station" E3 "Lincolnshire Poacher" E10 "Mossad phonetic station" A variant of S10 which is a Czech language station which operates on 6945 every now and then. Number stations generally use AM, however there are some which use upper side band, lower side band is rarely used.
The "E" and "S" codes are used by the European Enigma 2000 number stations club. They have set up a bunch of categories for different stations. "E" means English, "S" means Slavic, "M" Means it's a morse number station, "V" is all other languages. If you want to download some monthly newsletters of "Numbers and oddities" or the offical Enigma 2000 newsletter
click here. You can also join a free moderated group run by the Enigma 2000 club, it's active often and monitors from all over the world share there logs and speculation.
This is a good resource for finding out when a number station can be heard, there are listings of "psuedo schedules" for the various different stations.
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