Number Twitters

Grab a shortwave radio, go up on your roof at night, turn on the radio, and if the ionosphere is just right, you’ll be able to tune into some very, very strange radio stations. Some of these stations are just a voice — usually a woman’s voice — simply counting. Some are Morse code. All of them are completely unintelligible unless you have a secret code book. These are number stations, or radio stations nobody knows much about, but everyone agrees they’re used to pass messages from intelligence agencies to spies in the field.

A few years ago, we took a look at number stations, their history, and the efforts of people who document and record these mysterious messages used for unknown purposes. These number stations exist for a particular reason: if you’re a spy, you would much rather get caught with an ordinary radio instead of a fancy encryption machine. Passing code through intermediaries or dead drops presents a liability. The solution to both these problems lies in broadcasting messages in code, allowing anyone to receive them. Only the spy who holds a code book — or in the case of the Cuban Five, software designed to decrypt messages from number stations — can decipher the code.

Number stations are a hack, of sorts, of the entire concept of broadcasting. For all but a few, these number stations broadcast complete gibberish. Only to the person holding the code book or the decryption software do these number stations mean anything. However, since the first number stations went on the air over one hundred years ago, broadcasting has changed dramatically. We now have the Internet, and although most web services cannot be considered a one-to-many distribution as how broadcasting is defined, Twitter can. Are there number stations on Twitter? There sure are. Are they used by spies or agents of governments around the world? That’s a little harder to say.

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Run Your Own Numbers Station

Numbers stations are shortwave stations that broadcast cryptic messages that are widely assumed to be used for communications between nation states and spies. But who’s to say it’s up to the government to have all the fun? If you’ve always dreamed of running your own spy ring, you’ll need a way to talk to them too. Start with this guide on how to run your own numbers station.

The requirements are simple – you just need random numbers, one time pads for each recipient (available from our store!) and a way to send the audio – ideally a powerful shortwave transmitter, but for an intelligence agency on a budget, online streaming will work. Then you’re ready to send your message. [Jake Zielke] shares techniques on how to easily encode a message into numbers for transmission, and how to encrypt them with one time pad techniques. Done properly, this is an unbreakable form of encryption. [Jake] then rounds out the guide with tips on how to format your station’s transmissions to address multiple secret agents effectively.

It’s a great way to get started in the world of spooky secret radio communications. All the tools needed to get started are available on the page, so you’ll be up and running in no time. Meanwhile, why not do a little more research on the history of numbers stations?

Fictional Hacking: Michael Westen

I don’t know if it is true or not today, but in fiction, spies depend on lots of high-tech gadgets. I do know that during World War II, the various secret services like the OSS and the SOE did have gadgets like secret transmitters and concealed weapons. But, like [James Bond’s] grenade-launching ink pen, to [Maxwell Smart’s] shoe phone, those gadgets came from some organized lab. (When you watch the video below, remember that at that time, a personal phone going off in a theater was unknown as cell phones were years in the future.)

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Theremin’s Bug: How the Soviet Union Spied on the US Embassy for 7 Years

The man leaned over his creation, carefully assembling the tiny pieces. This was the hardest part, placing a thin silver plated diaphragm over the internal chamber. The diaphragm had to be strong enough to support itself, yet flexible enough to be affected by the slightest sound. One false move, and the device would be ruined. To fail meant a return to the road work detail, quite possibly a death sentence. Finally, the job was done. The man leaned back to admire his work.

The man in this semi-fictional vignette was Lev Sergeyevich Termen, better known in the western world as Léon Theremin. You know Theremin for the musical instrument which bears his name. In the spy business though, he is known as the creator of one of the most successful clandestine listening devices ever used against the American government.

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Secret Radio Stations by the Numbers

One thing has stayed with the James Bond movie franchise through the decades: Mr. Bond always has the most wonderful of gadgets. Be it handheld, car-based, or otherwise, there’s always something to thrill that is mostly believable.

The biggest problem with all of those gadgets is that they mark Commander Bond as an obvious spy. “So Mr. Bond, I see you have a book with many random five character groups. Nothing suspicious about that at all!” And we all know that import/export specialists often carry exploding cufflinks or briefcases full of unknown electronics in hidden compartments.

Just as steganography hides data in plain sight, the best spy gadgets are the ones that don’t seem to be a spy gadget. It is no wonder some old weapons are little more than sticks or farm implements. You can tell a peasant he can’t have a sword, but it is hard to ban sticks.

Imagine you were a cold war era spy living in a hostile country with a cover job with Universal Exports. Would you rather get caught with a sophisticated encryption machine or an ordinary consumer radio? I’m guessing you went with the radio. You aren’t the only one. That was one of the presumed purposes to the mysterious shortwave broadcasts known as number stations. These were very common during the cold war, but there are still a few of them operating.
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TEMPEST: a Tin Foil Hat for Your Electronics and Their Secrets

Electronics leak waves and if you know what you’re doing you can steal people’s data using this phenomenon. How thick is your tinfoil hat? And you sure it’s thick enough? Well, it turns out that there’s a (secret) government standard for all of this: TEMPEST. Yes, all-caps. No, it’s not an acronym. It’s a secret codename, and codenames are more fun WHEN SHOUTED OUT LOUD!

The TEMPEST idea in a nutshell is that electronic devices leak electromagnetic waves when they do things like switch bits from ones to zeros or move electron beams around to make images on CRT screens. If an adversary can remotely listen in to these unintentional broadcasts, they can potentially figure out what’s going on inside your computer. Read on and find out about the history of TEMPEST, modern research, and finally how you can try it out yourself at home!

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Pneumatic Pen Gun is Fit for James Bond

The James Bond franchise is well-known for many things, but perhaps most important to us hackers are the gadgets. Bond always had an awesome gadget that somehow was exactly the thing he needed to get out of a jam. [hw97karbine’s] latest project would fit right into an old Bond flick. He’s managed to build a single-shot pellet gun that looks like a pen.

[hw97karbine] started out by cutting the body from a tube of carbon fiber. He used a hacksaw to do the cutting, and then cleaned up the edges on a lathe. A barrel was cut from a piece of brass tubing with a smaller diameter. These two tubes will eventually sit one inside of the other. A custom front end cap was machined from brass. One end is ribbed and glued into the carbon fiber tube. The barrel is also glued to this end of the front cap, though it’s glued to the inside of the cap. The other end of the cap has 1/8″ BSP threads cut into it in order to allow for attachments.

A rear end cap is machined from Delrin. This piece also has a Delrin piston placed inside. The piston has a small piece of rubber used as a gasket. This piston valve is what allows the gun to operate. The rear cap gets glued into place and attached to a Schrader valve, removed from an automotive tire valve stem.

To pressurize the system, a bicycle pump is attached to the Schrader valve. This pushes the piston up against the barrel, preventing any of the air from escaping. The piston doesn’t make a perfect seal, so air leaks around it and pressurizes the carbon fiber tube. The Schrader valve prevents the air from leaking out of the pen body. A special machined button was threaded onto the Schrader valve. When the button is pressed, the air escapes; the sudden pressure imbalance causes the piston to shoot backwards, opening up a path for the air to escape through the barrel. This escaping air launches the projectile. The whole process is explained better with an animation.

Now, the question left in our mind: is this the same pressure imbalance concept that was used in that vacuum pressure bazooka we saw a couple years back?

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