Conet Project

Perhaps one of the more intriguing uses for radio broadcasting is spying. Covert radio stations broadcasting coded number or letter groups have been the interest of SWL and others for years.  The Conet Project sought to gather several of these recordings and make a CD out of them.  What they ended up with is a rather spooky 4 CD set of various spy numbers stations throughout the world conducting their business which dates back to 1997.  Since that date, samples of those recordings have been used in several movies and by recording artists.

While stationed on Guam doing important work for the government, we would often come across these numbers stations in the late 1980s. An East German numbers station was only 1 KHz away from one of our working frequencies, thus around 2 am local time, an East German lady would regale me with half an hour of five number groups in German, which is slightly off frequency, was utterly delightful.  We knew where it came from because of this and others like it.

Sort of like that.  That recording sounds like a computer-generated voice, ours was a real operator that would occasionally screw up.

The two most famous numbers stations are Cherry Ripe and Lincolnshire Poacher, so named after the songs they use for interval signals.

Both are allegedly off the air now, surely replaced with something else.  When pressed as to the purpose of these stations, a British information minister replied “They are what you think they are.”

The numbered groups are coded groups meant to be received by agents in the field.  The use of unique interval music helps to identify the broadcast.  Once those field agents have written down the coded groups, they use a one-time pad to decode them.  The one-time pad is then destroyed.  In all, it makes for a system that is almost unbreakable by any currently known analytical system.

In March 2003 on the eve of the Iraq war, also known as Operation Iraqi Freedom, NY radio station WFMU played the entire 4 CD set, appropriately freaking everybody out.

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2 thoughts on “Conet Project”

  1. The top clip is of the “Swedish Rhapsody” station; despite the language, it was a Polish station run by their version of the KGB*. I’ve heard similar transmissions (but in Spanish) overlapping the “Family Radio” station. From what I can tell the Spanish numbers are coming from Cuba, and use the same sort of Soviet technology as the Poles – I would bet it’s a nine-key Mellotron-like gizmo and the operator just punches a list of numbers (in batches of five) live on the air, after mashing the “!Attencion!” or “Achtung!” key three times at the beginning. I’ve read that numbers station listeners find the Cuban station hilarious: the voice machine has broken down on air, a rooster was heard crowing in the background, their transmitter drifts a lot, they don’t give a damn about who is using the frequency, etc.

    As for video two, what I’ve heard is that the British would transmit the “Poacher” numbers from a transmitter on Cyprus. Not as interesting, eh?


    * The Russians (like the Israelis) would transmit a live person rattling off numbers in English, and somewhere on the Internet is a wav file of an Israeli female number reader screwing up, stopping, and starting from the beginning again.

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