Numbers Stations and Encryptions

Matt Barton's picture

Brian DunningBrian DunningI was going through the older episodes of Skeptoid, one of my favorite podcasts, when I listened to one on Numbers Stations. These are mysterious shortwave radio transmissions that usually consist of an automated voice reading off sequences of apparently random numbers. The most rational explanation for these stations is that they are secret government communications to spies or saboteurs using something called a one-time pad, something else I hadn't heard much about before.

It's a method of encryption so good that it's thought that no one can break it without the key, even if you had infinite computing power. The reason for that is the numbers in the broadcast give no information (or clues) that can be used to decipher it--the only real vulnerability is that someone finds the key. This explains the "one-time pad" part of it--like in so many spy movies, the key is destroyed after its one-time use. I still have to wonder, though--COME ON! Maybe I'm just a hopeless child of 80s optimism and faith in human ingenuity or whatever, but I'm sure a true genius could learn how to crack these codes. What do you think?

My dad has always been a fan of shortwave radio, and I had a great time playing with them when I was a kid. I'd usually tune it to hear propaganda broadcasts from China and such (this was at a time when our relations with them was much worse than they are now). I even mailed Radio Beijing once and asked for some info about the country; they sent me a small white booklet called "Human Rights in China" that I wish I had kept. I remember it had a chapter about the allegations that Chinese parents murdered their daughters if they preferred a son, since they were only allowed to have a single child. Anyway, the booklet first stated that no such infanticides had ever happened and was just a lie made up by hostile governments. Later on in the booklet, though, it said the Chinese government had gotten much better at cracking down on it, and gave some statistics to show how much it had decreased. Even back then I was able to spot the inconsistency.

But anyway, I digress. I also heard many of these number stations, as well as plenty of others that were obviously radio modems. I was always fascinated by them and would have loved to find some way to figure out what they were saying. It's pretty amazing to think that we're right now surrounded by all kinds of top secret signals that none of us will ever be able to decipher.

On a related note, I also enjoyed Brian's episode on The Missing Cosmonauts, which concerns two hobbyists who made extensive records of Soviet satellite and other transmissions from space during the Cold War. They made some recordings that are, by the way, extremely creepy and disturbing, of what sounds like doomed cosmonauts dying in space. However, there are no official records to confirm that these missions ever took place, but of course the infamous Soviet secrecy and misinformation campaigns cast everything into doubt. Brian is skeptical that the recordings prove what they claim, but it's not clear in any case what the recordings are actually recordings of, if that makes any sense.

At any rate, give a listen to both of them! They have sound samples of the material in question and are quite fascinating.

Comments

Bill Loguidice
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Definitely one of my favorite

Definitely one of my favorite podcasts. As a skeptic myself, podcasts like this and Skeptic's Guide to the Universe are endlessly entertaining. I'm thankful that we live in a time where skeptical thought (Penn & Teller's Bullshit!, etc.) is so active and high profile, if not necessarily embraced by the majority of the population who are themselves skeptical of science and critical thought...

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Matt Barton
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We're definitely on the same

We're definitely on the same page, Bill. I think a lot of skeptics are probably like me--raised in a non-critical, religious environment that stressed belief in scripture and a skepticism towards science, government, or whoever else was perceived to be critical of said scripture.

It's funny how that nutty blind-devotion to scripture also seems to lend itself to embracing conspiracy theories. I guess once you get away from requiring some type of credible evidence for your beliefs, anything is fair game.

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Catatonic
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The one-time pad truly is

The one-time pad truly is mathematically unbreakable, but there is a major practical problem. The sender & receiver have to exchange a secret code book in advance, (it's just a series of random numbers) using some other mechanism. (Such as public key cryptography, or handcuffing a locked briefcase to a spy and sending him on a boat.) And when you run out of codes you have to create some more and exchange them again.

If nobody intercepts the code exchange then your enciphered messages really cannot be broken, it just looks like random garbage and it is impossible to check if your guesses are correct or not. With other types of encryption you can at least do a brute force approach & stop guessing when you get the right answer.

Matt Barton
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It's intriguing, for sure. I

It's intriguing, for sure. I guess it must be pretty damn effective if they're comfortable broadcasting on shortwave, where anybody in any country could intercept it.

Reading up on it more revealed some other interesting aspects, such as the difficulty of getting truly random numbers. Then there's the difficulties of making sure that only the intended recipient gets the pad, such as printing it in tiny, tiny print and hiding it in a walnut shell. Whoa! Makes you wonder what kind of information warrants that kind of secrecy.

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Bill Loguidice
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Randomness
Matt Barton wrote:

Reading up on it more revealed some other interesting aspects, such as the difficulty of getting truly random numbers. Then there's the difficulties of making sure that only the intended recipient gets the pad, such as printing it in tiny, tiny print and hiding it in a walnut shell. Whoa! Makes you wonder what kind of information warrants that kind of secrecy.

That's an interesting concept, "difficulty of getting truly random numbers." Though anecdotal, I've experienced that first hand with our iPhones. We hit random and the same songs seem to pop up again and again from a rather large pool...

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Catatonic
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Randomness
Bill Loguidice wrote:

That's an interesting concept, "difficulty of getting truly random numbers." Though anecdotal, I've experienced that first hand with our iPhones. We hit random and the same songs seem to pop up again and again from a rather large pool...

The thing about randomness is that you do sometimes get repeating sequences. I remember Apple at one time introduced an option to reduce the randomness of shuffle, to make it more of an even distribution, which is what a lot of people actually mean when they say random.

Matt Barton
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Whut? What's the difference

Whut? What's the difference between random and shuffling? I thought shuffling meant you were making something random, like a deck of cards.

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Catatonic
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shuffle
Matt Barton wrote:

Whut? What's the difference between random and shuffling? I thought shuffling meant you were making something random, like a deck of cards.

Putting your iTunes on shuffle usually does play songs at random, but there is a setting to make it less random and more of an even distribution (to avoid having the same album or artist play two or three times in a row, which happens sometimes in a purely random shuffle)

clok1966
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My best freind is a Radio

My best freind is a Radio fanatic, top of his house lookes like a pin cushion... He was putting out so much power he was messing with TV's around his house (he doesnt anymore).. The numbers are no spies :) hehehe he explained um once to me... but sadly I dont remeber much of what it was. I seem to remeber its automated repeaters. They use the numbers to tell uptime and track them to make sure they are working. I think there is a time/date in there, an uptime and some info on broadcast strength, how long its been repeating and such like that.

Matt Barton
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Listen to the podcast clok

Listen to the podcast clok and see if you agree. I want to hear your opinion.

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