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 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.