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Numbers Stations: Without A Trace…

Within the bounds of our brief transit on this earth, we attempt to make our mark. Leaving a permanent trace of one’s life, in some quarters, is a large part of the purpose of our lives. In our digital lives, we leave traces wherever we go. We generate clouds of data as we surf along the surfaces of the Network. In the name of data portability, we claim the data we generate and assert personal ownership over it. We even leave instructions for how the data should be handled in the event of our death. What were footprints in the sand are now captured in digital amber.

While our most everyday communications have migrated to the Network, some of our most secret communications take a different path. It’s believed that governments have been sending secret messages using Numbers Stations since World War I. Here’s Wikipedia’s definition:

Numbers stations (or number stations) are shortwave radio stations of uncertain origin. They generally broadcast artificially generated voices reading streams of numbers, words, letters (sometimes using a spelling alphabet), tunes or Morse code. They are in a wide variety of languages and the voices are usually female, though sometimes male or children’s voices are used.

In an interview with NPR, Mark Stout, the official historian of the International Spy Museum, explains why Numbers Stations are still in use:

“Because [a message] can be broadcast over such an enormous area, you can be transmitting to an agent who may be thousands of miles away,” he says. And, he adds, computer communications almost always leave traces.

“It’s really hard to erase data out of your hard drive or off a memory stick,” he says. “But all you need here is a shortwave radio and pencil and paper.”

By using what’s called a one-time pad, these messages can’t be cracked. Again, here’s Mark Stout:

…because the transmissions use an unbreakable encryption system called a one-time pad: encryption key is completely random and changes with every message.

“You really truly cryptanalytically have no traction getting into a one-time pad system,‚Ä? Stout says. “None at all.”

The use of short wave radio combines the capacity to send messages over great distances with the ability to obscure the origin of the broadcast. By taking down the message using a pencil and paper, the coded message stays off the information grid of the digital Network. Tools that pre-date the digital Network route around the media that makes permanent copies as a part of the process of transmission. While these messages are out there for anyone to listen to, and even record, the endpoints of the communication and the content of the messages remain opaque.

Historically, we’ve always had a medium that would allow us to communicate without leaving a trace. Now a whisper in the ear becomes an SMS message for your eyes only. While there’s much to be gained from our new modes of permanent public social messaging, I wonder if there’s a case to be made for the message without a paper trail, without a digital imprint, without any trace at all. Can we ever embrace the impermanence of a moment that can only be imperfectly replayed in human memory? The Numbers Station is reminder of another mode of speaking in a temporary medium.

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