Tuesday, September 07, 2010

7 September 2010: UVB-76

Baby photos continue at Gloria's Facebook! Hannah now up to 8lb 15oz, having lost 10% of birthweight she's now put it back on, and then some. Two weeks old today!

Meantime another three years has passed, and that means it's time for another William Gibson novel. My copy of 'Zero History' has been ordered from Amazon and is going by cheap-person super-saver might-arrive-this-year mail, so I haven't got it yet. But it certainly looks to be the completion of another unwitting trilogy from the man who doesn't like trilogies but keeps inadvertantly writing them. The completion of the 'Blue Ant' world - and a review of some description on this blog - to follow soon.

Meantime, of course, that brings me back to Spy Shortwave: those mysterious 'Number Stations' and the like. Last time we spoke, the legendary Lincolnshire Poacher appeared to have been pensioned off from the MI6 payroll, and it was followed shortly after by the disappearance of its far-east cousin, Cherry Ripe. So, what to listen to now? Well, out on the flat roof at the back of our place you can usually get the Cuban stations pretty clearly, even with a rubbishy portable radio that happens to have a SW dial such as that which I acquired in New Zealand. But that's not really interesting: just numbers, same as before, and I haven't heard any of the legendary gaffes.

But now attention around the internet seems to have turned to another long-standing favourite of the spy-numbers-listening community: The Buzzer, or UVB-76 to give it its (apparently real) title. This is a weird carrier wave on 4.625 Mhz that, since at least 1982, has broadcast buzzing noises of around a second each, then a short gap, then another buzz... about 30 times a minute on average. Triangulation has narrowed the broadcast down to a particularly large military installation in Russia, seemingly with its own power substation and backup system. The Buzzer has a wikipedia page, it has a fan-club, and now, due to certain surprising recent activity, it has someone relaying it live over the internet.

The history is this: it buzzes, except for a very small number of exceptional times, when some guy comes on and speaks Russian. First recorded instance on Christmas Eve 1997, when the cryptic message "Ya, UVB-76, 18008, BROMAL, Boris, Roman, Olga, Mikhail, Anna, Larisa, 742, 799, 14" was given out: not by recorded, automated voice (as with normal number stations), this was live. Then five years later another, then another in 2006... then in August of this year, it all went a little crazy.

The buzzer stopped. That was the first thing. It appeared to be down for maintenance as the carrier wave - the radio signal - kept broadcasting. Then some Russian voices. Then some music. But mainly just empty carrier signal... dead air. And before you knew it, the internet rumour mill went into overdrive.

The main rumour surrounds the notion that the buzzer is a 'Dead Man's Handle' of some sort: it broadcasts this very strong, very simple signal that can be essentially heard anywhere in the world at any give time. So it's being used to control something, some massive attack, some spy cell, some nuclear device, some alien invasion... and when it goes off, all these years later, it's 'go go go' for whatever it was holding back. Some of this has even made it onto TV shows already (apparently there's some obscure cartoon named 'Adult Swim' where the behaviour of UVB-76 has been referenced as meaning the end of the world). The single biggest rumour surrounds the apparent forthcoming assassination of the Russian President during September of this year. Frankly I believe the 'Martin O'Neill for next Southampton manager' ahead of that, but if Medvedev doesn't make it to October, word is you should look to head to Australia and hang out in the outback until the heat is off.

I first came to the Missing Buzzer Thing via the Spooks mailing list, where most SW anomalies get picked up pretty quickly - and even traced sometimes - by the local spods on there. That led me to the streaming site and as I sit here working away today, putting together metadata documents and wondering how many nappies Hannah can get through in a day, I'm listening, curious to hear what's happening, live on the Buzzer frequency.

And I'm not the only one. And this is a problem: the last few days have seen pirate broadcasts on this frequency accelerate massively. As I listen I hear the empty carrier (although there clearly was a voice about three hours ago on the main Buzzer carrier), but also a repeating high-pitched morse code (I'm told it's just the question mark, repeated over and over) and various bits of voice, music and other nonsense. Even to my untrained ear I can tell it's different from the main broadcast - all shortwave fades in and out a bit, and the music, morse etc is fading in a different way from the main broadcast - but the Spooks folks reckon there are at least nine pirates out there in the last few days, trying to get our attention while the Buzzer is down and tensions are raised.

The most interesting of the pirate broadcasts appears to be the guy (well, it could be a girl, but you just know it's a guy, don't you?) who has figured out how to broadcast in such a way that it makes letters appear on the 'waterfall' spectrum-tracker they have on the live page. Here's the link... essentially this guy is putting up rude words in Russian for people to read on this page. But again, it's a pirate, and maybe the Russian authorities may not take too kindly to someone effectively jamming one of their (unofficial, of course) military frequencies.

Meantime I await the next Gibson book, and I'm currently re-reading Spook Country in between working, changing nappies (seriously, how does she turn milk into that stuff?) and listening in to UVB-76, the Buzzer that maybe, just maybe, is no more.

Update - Wednesday lunchtime: The Buzzer is back, came back around noon eastern, and then went off after about fifteen minutes to be replaced by some phonetics (Russian names whose initial letters spell the word of interest) read by a Russian lady who sounded angry or automated (couldn't tell which). Since then, silence, then very strong buzzer, then weaker buzzer, and as I write, the buzzer is pretty strong again. Very curious behaviour. Whatever this Buzzer is about, it's certainly weird. And another thing: the voice messages no longer identify it as UVB-76 - now it's named 'MDZB' instead, at least according to the messages, and they certainly don't seem to be pirates in this case. This is the real buzzing deal, and it's weird.

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