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.

Number Tweets

Number stations broadcast around the dial, but there’s a trick — you need to know what frequency they’re broadcasting on. Like number radio stations, there’s a trick to number Twitter accounts. You need to find them. Sierra Golf 5, Cynthia Fortune, and Zulu Tango 4 are the most commonly cited ‘number Twitter Stations’. These Twitter accounts have been active since September 2013, January 2012, and January 2016, respectively.

I can’t explain Cynthia Fortune, but with the help of Tweepy, I’ve checked the other 6,758 obvious Twitter handles and found nothing of note. There are most likely other number Twitter accounts that do not follow the pattern of two letters of the NATO alphabet and a single digit but that search space required to find them is just slightly less than infinity.

What do these numbers mean? They could mean nothing. These Twitter accounts could be a bot someone has left running on a server for the last four years. They could be number station enthusiasts ‘avin a laugh. These tweets could be coded messages being passed to spies or government operatives. It could be the control system for a botnet. Nobody knows.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Sierra Golf 5 and Zulu Tango 4 have been broadcasting twenty-nine sets of five digit numbers every five minutes for years now. This is not the extent of their broadcast. Very, very rarely, these number twitters show a bit of lucidity:

“Oh, ’tis my delight on a shiny night in the season of the year” is the refrain from The Lincolnshire Poacher, an English folk song. This is a reference to a number station operating from Cyprus from the mid-70s until 2008. This number station used a few bars from this folk song as an interval signal for each message. The Lincolnshire Poacher was (most likely) operated by MI6 or other intelligence agency to communicate with operatives overseas.

Whether the use of The Lincolnshire Poacher is meaningful or this is just the product of someone with a very odd hobby is an open question. The only thing we know for certain is that the person operating Sierra Golf 5 knows the history of number stations.

What does this all mean? Nothing, just like any number station. The purpose of a true number station — to pass messages encoded with a one-time pad — means there is no information to be gleaned from the transmission. It is a proven cryptographically secure way to transmit messages, and the only way we’ll ever find out what these messages mean is if a former spy spills the beans.

But Why Twitter?

There are a lot of services on the Internet. Spies could transmit their message through Insta, Snapchat, whatever else those entitled millennials are into these days, reddit, YouTube, or something normal like email. For some reason, though, Twitter is the closest thing on the Internet to broadcasting, as defined by one-to-many communications over a shared resource (such as the electromagnetic spectrum). I need only to point to the bizarre proposals to turn Twitter into a co-op as evidence of the ‘shared resource’ of that claim. Posting messages in YouTube videos put you at the mercy of Google and passing orders through Facebook nails you to that cross.

Twitter is different, though. In some strange way, it’s become a service on the Internet just like email and web servers. I don’t pretend to understand it, but for some heavy Twitter users, this service is something completely different from email or any other server on the Internet. Twitter is the closest thing to broadcasting the Internet has — a one-to-many communications platform that can be accessed by anyone. I believe it’s a dumb argument, but that’s the zeitgeist of Twitter for you.

What messages these number twitters are trying to pass, or whether they’re just a hobby of someone who knows a little scripting, is an open question. It does bring number stations into the 21st century, though, and provides ample opportunity for a new generation to catalog the oddities being broadcast around us.

47 thoughts on “Number Twitters

  1. What about P2P torrent networks? It should be possible for an spy agency to take a popular movie/song/book and hide some secret message there, that way the intended recipient could download it along with millions of other users making hard to pinpoint which of those users is the spy.

  2. Makes me wonder what would happen if someone guessed the password to one to these, and randomly spewed out groupings of numbers until you see spies just roaming the streets, because you passed them strange coordinates or weird orders to mill around or something

  3. i wonder how much attention from three letter agencies one can get from running a twitter bot like this, even if it’s just for “‘avin a laugh”.

  4. You still have to query or follow the number Twitter feed to see it so anybody monitoring traffic can see that you’ve subscribed (negates the anonymous one to all nature of numbers stations that is their very core strength). Usenet would be a better medium for broadcasting numbers messages.

      1. That defeats the simplicity of the radio transmissions.

        The agent listens, then scrambles the tuner and all evidence is gone that the station was being monitored. If you use some sort of obfuscating or anonymizing software to browse for a URL or tweets, or what have you, then you already look suspicious. Crypto nerds often forget that things like end-to-end encryption are great, but the very fact you were communicating with the other party (and when) is usually what courts are most interested in.

  5. > There are most likely other number Twitter accounts that do not follow the pattern of two letters of the NATO alphabet and a single digit but that search space required to find them is just slightly less than infinity.

    (26^2)*10 = 6760 which is indeed slightly less than infinity.

    A lot less.

    1. um, that is the number of accounts that he said he checked for using tweerpy, it’s stations that DON’T follow that formula that represent a vast search space.

  6. 83103 11210 49710 96990 83103 11210 67148 11175 89711 12105 89681 19717 76774 12079 67861 20731 06531 20786 86510 57572 69108 80110 69497 86873 43788 48211 78310 31121 03971 09699 08310 31121 07971 09741 06806 61041 20748 41074 37468 89537 48869 52748 86910 97767 74120 79681 19104 80105 73105 79687 75778 72574 71024 81117 58910 91121 04718 51117 58984 11961 10999

    This may help you: 309 566 769 690 749 256 230 127 765 844 387 778 116

    1. Think it through. The value in numbers stations is that they are high-powered stations broadcasting omnidirectionally, making the possible recipients location a very large area. Beaming a low power signal to a recipient is like shining a flashlight on them.

      1. Five-letter groups are easy to read and transcribe. Try transcribing a continuous stream of random letters – the error rate increases as you go. Why five instead of four or six? I suppose that’s mainly tradition, and the fact that if everybody uses five-letter groups, that grouping in itself doesn’t give any information about the sender.

  7. I think it most likely that these are just for-fun stations. It’s a sport that costs nothing to play. The Cuban Five were convicted largely because they had the necessary decryption software on their computers. Nobody whose life depended on security would trust IP-based communications.

    1. Five-letter groups are easy to read and transcribe. Try transcribing a continuous stream of random letters – the error rate increases as you go. Why five instead of four or six? I suppose that’s mainly tradition, and the fact that if everybody uses five-letter groups, that grouping in itself doesn’t give any information about the sender.

  8. Can’t see/hear the Lincolnshire Poacher without hearing Rambling Sid Rumpo’s version… “Oh ’tis my delight on a foggy night when the coppers aren’t about”

    1. O, I was a clencher’s bogle man
      In famous Lincoln town.
      I’d often clench my bogling fork
      For less than half a crown.
      And I would woggle and nurk, me boys,
      As I shall quickly tell:
      O, ’tis my delight on a shiny night,
      And a foggy night as well!
      (I could go on, but won’t.)

  9. It can be a relay station between 2 web services. Let say I have an InReach or a Spot beacon, I want to display my position on my website. It cost me a bit every time I want to send a message but that same device send tweets for free. So I can format my tweets in a way that my infos are shorter and then I can code a tweet listener that convert it to show the infos on my website…

  10. A search for “cynthia fortune” comes up with an obituary for Cynthia M. Fortune, who lived in DC, and died 2014-06-10. The Cynthia Fortune twitter account started in early 2012, but it’s conceivable that a woman who retired in 2011 from a certain agency might be memorialized in this manner.

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