Monday, August 06, 2007

6 August 2007: Spooks

In advance of William Gibson's new novel "Spook Country", official release date tomorrow, I inadvertently slipped around to thinking about the spying game last weekend.

In particular, I remembered something I heard Danny Kelly tell Danny Baker once on a football phone-in (of all places) - something like:
DK: Aah, the secret bells and numbers. Just like shortwave radio. 'Our hen has laid one egg'.
DB: What are you talking about?
DK: You know those weird noises and radio stations you hear after dark on medium wave or short wave, like ringing bells or people reading out lists of numbers?
DB: I always thought that was the national lottery.
DK: No, it's government spies, all sending messages to each other.
DB: Seriously? It's spies?
DK: Yeah, it's the governments sending out covert messages to their agents. Probably telling them why Graeme Le Saux shouldn't be playing for England.

OK, so that dates it as being circa 1998, and forgive me if the exact words are incorrect. But it stuck in my brain.

So Saturday night, in advance of the Gibson book and still feeling a little bit ill after eating rather too much tandoori chicken a couple of days before, I went online to see what I could see about these mystical spy radio stations. Naturally, I started at Wikipedia, since it knows everything about everything. There I found a curiously uncertain page about 'number stations', putting suggestions forward as conjecture explanations for these mystical short-wave number-reading stations, rather than stating as fact in normal wikipedia fashion. From this I garnered one important fact: we don't actually know what they are, but from occasional media slips, court cases and directional receiving equipment, we do have a pretty good idea.

During the Cold War, and to a lesser extent since, spies were placed in 'enemy' countries and given little books of coded numbers called 'one-time pads'. These code-books, to be used once, are a mathematically-proven uncrackable way to pass encrypted information (although you can have a go if you want), and so to communicate with their agents in the field, all the government has to do is send a whole bunch of numbers, usually grouped in sets of five, and it does this via these unlicensed, technically illegal, shortwave radio stations.

Naturally, a spod group (sorry, group of curious enthusiasts) formed around these mystical semi-broadcasters and for over forty years people have been tracking these stations, recording their frequency changes, trying to decrypt the headers (the messages themselves are uncrackable, but the first part of the message, saying which agent the message is for and occasionally other information, is marginally more accessible, although largely meaningless), and more interestingly trying to figure out just who is doing the broadcasting.

The best-known station is one named the 'Lincolnshire Poacher', so-called because it begins every broadcast with a few bars of the eponymous English folk-song. If that weren't a hint enough as to the country of origin (the language and accent, incidentally, is often English, even for Soviet or Eastern Bloc stations), those clever spods with their directional receivers actually traced the signals to a UK-run RAF base in Cyprus. Oops. The BBC, bless them, deny all knowledge of anything at all (they once said a numbers station was "nothing more sinister than the snowfall figures for the ski slopes". Uh-huh.) but BFBS, the British Forces Broadcaster, did on once occasion acknowledge the existence of broadcasts from their systems, and noted the frequency was 'lent' to them by the BBC. Domestically, the BBC occasionally discuss the phenomena (aside from Baker and Kelly), but stop well short of stating the pretty-well-accepted explanation of what they are, why they're there and certainly whether the BBC Overseas Dept has anything to do with it.

Of course, plenty of other such stations exist, although not in the same numbers as during the Cold War era. Cuba still runs the 'Atencion' stations (hilariously sometimes featuring snippets of Radio Havana broadcasts when somebody plugs the wrong cable in) and the former Eastern Bloc countries, notably the Czech Republic, seem pretty heavy users of the system. The US runs a few, Russia seems to run quite a number and China has recently added a few stations from what the tracking pages tell us. If you really want to know more, you can sign up for the "Numbers and Oddities Newsletter", a monthly round-up of number lists from spods all over the world, or even download 4 CDs of recorded number stations (oo, that'll knock Timbaland off the number one spot).

So, before going to bed on Saturday I flicked the radio from its normal (if little used) position of Five Live over to shortwave and tried to see what I could find. Through all the different bands... lots of Indian music... some bizarre Euro-trance beat-heavy stuff... "This is Radio China International... " "And now, with his defence of the Catholic Faith..." "... broadcasting from Prague with the latest news ..." dit-dit-deet-dit-deet-deet (mildly promising) ... "... to do in Beijing this weekend... "

But no numbers. Maybe it was the wrong time of day, although the reports are that the stations seem to mainly start on the hour of half-hour, and I was listening at exactly midnight BST. Still, it helped me get to sleep better than NyQuil, and that's mainly what I needed.

So, that was my Gibson Preparation Exercise. Now online this morning, checking up on tomorrow's launch date.... to discover that 7th August is the US launch date for the book. The UK launch date is 2nd August. Yes, Gibsonians, we know what that means: the book is ALREADY OUT!


So I'm going to sign off at that point and head off to Waterstones before they run out. Wonder if it will out-sell 'Harry Potter and the Pointless Sequel' or whatever it's called?

Postscript: Different astonishment from Blogger's spell-checker: for some reason it actually does recognise 'NyQuil' as a word. Is there some sponsorship going on that I don't know about?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I can't believe that a government of any kind is organised enough to keep secrets. Have you seen the civil service?!?!

no spying on bank holidays or after 3:00pm on a friday... my weekends are my own and you'll need to promote me a grade if I'm to decode this stuff because it isn't in my job description.

sort of thing...