For many many years, short-wave radio bands have been blessed with what are called ‘numbers stations‘. These are radio stations that come on at certain times of the day, or certain days of the week, sometimes starting with a musical callsign such as the Lincolnshire Poacher, and then, using a robotic voice, repeatedly broadcasting blocks of numbers.
Radio enthusiasts have been fascinated by these stations for decades. It’s thought they first started during World War One, were heard a lot during World War Two, yet were at their most prolific during the ‘cold war’ years since the last war.
They were used in order to pass instructions and information to ‘spies‘ embedded in other countries. Until very recently, it was quite common to own and travel with a little radio, usually one capable of receiving FM, AM and short-wave. Whilst this may have been left tuned to more conventional frequencies and stations, at certain times of the day the spy would probably sit in the bathroom and secretly re-tune to a ‘numbers station‘.
Writing down the numbers they would then translate them via a ‘one time pad‘ or look up words in the Bible, depending on the method being used, and then commit to memory the message from the UK’s SiS or the USA’s CIA or whichever country’s agency they worked for. This one-way messaging system was far more efficient and undetectable compared to telephone conversations, postal, satellite and even simple email communication. On all of the latter, the ‘receiving spy‘ leaves a ‘footprint’ which can be seen and blows their cover.
This is why it has taken until now for the numbers stations to migrate to platforms beyond short-wave radio.
Communication is now via Youtube.
So far, there is one main Youtube channel being used to send the messages. And instead of a voice reading out numbers, there are over 77,000 individual videos, all of approximately 11 seconds in length. They consist of various tones and a constantly changing collection of coloured blocks in 9 different sub-‘slides’ within each video.
To try to put off the casual inquisitor, the blocks look like they are cut from the French flag or ‘tri-colour‘, plus there’s a tiny French cartoon that was uploaded at one point that included French fries (and geo-locked to French viewers only), and a short video of the Eiffel Tower which is of course, French.
However, of course, as we know, such things are usually harengs rouge – ‘red herrings‘ to you and me. It was common on the ‘numbers stations‘ to use an accent or a language that was the complete opposite of that used in the country of origin. Clever, eh?
The user name for the Youtube channel sending out these top secret messages is Webdriver Torso.
The key code for translating the messages was added as a comment at the very beginning. “Matei is very intelligent” Webdriver Torso said. The initial videos were labelled ‘aqua‘ (French for ‘water’ of course) before they started retaining the temporary file name the original Flash Video files were created with. Indeed, within each video, each second is still labelled with ‘aqua‘. Why?
So, just as people used to look at the patterns in the grouping of the numbers that were read out on short-wave radio, so too are people noticing the format of the Webdriver Torso videos. You can too. The Webdriver Torso Youtube channel is here.
I’ve littered this article with additional clues and some red herrings, as I am in fear of becoming life extinct if I say too much, but fancy trying your hand at translating the code? If you do, keep it quiet for the sake of your health and that of your family.
Here’s the first video to translate: