Stray Signals

Do Shortwave ‘Numbers Stations’ Really Instruct Spies? – Radio World

OTTAWA, Ontario — “6-7-9-2-6. 5-6-9-9-0.” Tune across the shortwave bands (above AM/MW), and chances are you will come across a “numbers station.” There’s no programming to speak of; just a mechanical-sounding voice (male or female) methodically announcing seemingly random groups of single digit numbers for minutes on end.

The site of British intelligence’s numbers station transmitter site, “The Lincolnshire Poacher,” at the RAF base in Akrotiri, Cyprus.
Credit: Lewis Bush, ”Shadows of the State.”

Congratulations! You are now officially a spy-catcher, to the extent that you may have tuned into a spy agency’s “numbers station” transmitting one-way instructions to their minions worldwide.

Numbers stations are unidentified radio broadcasts that consist usually of a mechanical voice “reading out strings of seemingly random numbers,” explained Lewis Bush, author of “Shadows of the State” a new history of numbers stations and the spies who run them. “These are sometimes accompanied by music, tones or other sound effects.” He said. “There are also related stations broadcasting in Morse Code and digital modes.”


Program formats aside, the common purpose of numbers stations is “to broadcast coded messages to spies in distant countries,” said Ryan Schaum. He is co-founder of Numbers Station Research and Information Center (NSRIC), a hobbyist group that reports on these signals at According to Schaum, the “use of shortwave allows complete secrecy and makes it impossible to determine who the recipient is.”

In order to decode the message hidden within the numbers broadcast, “the recipient uses ‘one-time pad’ encryption, which cannot be decoded by anyone without the time pad key,” said Schaum. Printed on paper pads, the one-time pad key allows the recipient to decode the message just once, it is then discarded for a fresh key after every use, thus making the cipher literally unbreakable. “For these reasons, numbers stations are still used today.”

A waveform file of “The Lincolnshire Poacher” numbers station broadcast.
Credit: Lewis Bush, “Shadows of the State.”

The notion that spy agencies are contacting spies using code broadcasts over shortwave may seem like a paranoid delusion. But as the saying goes, “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.”

In the case of numbers stations and the evidence associated with them, “the most widely agreed upon theory is that they are operated by intelligence agencies,” said Bush. “This theory has been backed up by a number of cases where spies have been uncovered or arrested in the act of listening to or decoding these stations, and in a few rarer cases by declassified documents and government admissions of ownership.”

“Voice (numbers) stations are known to be spy messages,” said Paul Beaumont. He is an associate editor of Eye Spy Intelligence Magazine, an independent publication dedicated to espionage and intelligence. “For instance, V02 in Spanish was used to instruct Ana Belen Montes,” Beaumont said.

Montes was a United States Defense Intelligence Agency employee who spied for Cuba from 1985 until caught by the FBI in 2001. A 2016 report by CNN’s Thom Patterson described Monte as “The most dangerous U.S. spy you’ve never heard of.”

One of Ana Belen Monte’s notes used for decoding messages from her Cuban handlers.
Credit: Wiki Commons


Motivated by what she saw as the U.S.’ unfair policy toward Cuba, Montes avoided detection by never removing top-secret documents from the DIA. Instead, this spy memorized what documents she could at work, and then transcribed these memories on her laptop at home.

Next, she would receive coded instructions from Cuban

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