The date is February 23, 2009, the time is 7:00 P.M. Somewhere in the world sits an unknown figure listening to static noise coming out of a radio receiver.
Suddenly, out of the static a woman’s voice can be heard – but instead of a news flash or traffic report, she simply repeats the words “Echo, Zulu, India” time after time, for three full minutes. When this ends, the mysterious woman says: “Message, message, group 32, group 32, text, text.”
After this, and for the next five minutes, she reads out in the phonetic alphabet letters in groups of five:
Echo November Quebec Papa Echo
November Kilo November X-ray Uniform
She ends the message with the words: “End of message.”
Who is broadcasting and what about? What the hell’s going on here?
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You don’t have to believe in conspiracy theories to realize that something very strange is going on here, but it’s not about aliens or messages from the future. It’s “only” Cold War-style radio stations for spies known as “numbers stations.” Their entire purpose is to broadcast at specific times a seemingly random sequence of numbers, letters or words, and sometimes even signals like Morse Code.
In most cases the entity behind the station’s operation is unknown, as is the real reason for their operation. But they are commonly thought to be the means by which intelligence agencies send messages to their operatives in target countries.
Most countries have never admitted to operating numbers stations, but the assumption is that many countries did and still do have them, such as the United States, Britain, Germany, Russia, China and Egypt.
Numbers stations were born more than 100 years ago during World War I, and they proliferated during the Cold War. Almost every country had its own number station. Some of them are still operating today, but they are disappearing because intelligence agencies are moving to more sophisticated means of communication by internet or satellite.
One unique numbers station began broadcasting in the 1960s. According to foreign sources, the broadcasts came from deep in Tel Aviv, and therefore they are usually attributed to the Israeli Mossad. In the past, a few attempts were even made to block it by disrupting its broadcasts. It has been inactive since 2011.
The station broadcasted sequences of the so-called NATO phonetic alphabet in English: A= Alpha, B = Bravo, C = Charlie, etc.
The message that appears at the beginning of this report was broadcast by that very station. The mysterious encrypted message was intended for agent Echo Zulu India.
And now, can we decode it? Not really.
The assumption is that the numbers stations of intelligence agencies broadcast by means of an encryption known as a “one-time pad.” The unique aspect of this type of encryption is that there is a mathematical solution that cann be usedd as a key to encrypt the message. The key is randomly selected, and if it was used only once, the code cannot be broken even by an adversary with unlimited computation capabilities.
Anyone who wants to dive deep into this encryption is invited to try. Because the radio broadcasts were shortwave, any spy in range can receive messages by means of a simple, ordinary radio without leaving evidence. All that is needed is that both sides – the sender and the recipient – of the message, use the same pad containing a random sequence of letters (the one-time key) – the broadcaster to encrypt it and the recipient to decode it.
The use of an unbreakable code makes it possible to broadcast without concern that anyone except the spies themselves will be able to decode the message.
Is there any way to break the coded?
Well, every rule has an exception.
In March 2006, the mysterious station broadcast to agent “Kilo Papa Alpha” the following message:
This is apparently your only opportunity to decode a message sent by the Mossad.
Did you do it? If not, the answer is hidden in the following link.
Dr. Gil David is a researcher focused on cryptography, artificial intelligence and machine learning.