PolySciFi Blog

Tuesday, April 05, 2005


Numbers Stations on the Internet

When I was in middle school, I was mildly obsessed for a month or so with numbers stations. Those are the AM radio stations on which a mechanical voice reads random numbers or letters; you've heard them, even if you don't know it. The voice on Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, for example (the one that says "Yankee...Hotel...Foxtrot" over and over in the background of "Poor Places") is from a numbers station. The stations are mostly gone now; they were a cold war relic, used to transmit encoded information (probably encoded with one-time-pads, and thus theoretically impossible to cryptanalize). Here's a (real audio) sample of a transmission. Very creepy, and although for the most part they're on shortwave, I remember coming across them at the bottom of the AM band as a kid.

Anyway. If you're interested in numbers stations, this is a good site:
http://www.spynumbers.com. It has a database and schedule of currently operating stations, as well as information on every operating station they've ever found and logged.

And here's a site with lots of audio samples of both stations with spoken letters and numbers and stations with data encoded in musical tones. Both kinds of transmission are unbelievably creepy.

But all that's just background. What I really wanted to post about is this: What's going on at time.nist.gov? If you telnet to port 78 or 79 of time.nist.gov, which is a government run timeserver, something strange indeed happens. You don't get a login prompt, just a blinking cursor. Hit enter, and you get a message like this:

K: K: My name is Katy: and my husband's name is Karl:
We come from Kansas: and we
sell Ketchup::
$ 0 1982 3000 8 1 0 0

Or this:

V: V: My name is Victoria: and my husband's name is Victor:
We come from Venice:
and we sell Valves::
$ 0 2537 3000 8 1 0 0

The message changes with time; the letters used for the rhyme and the numbers that follow it are different each time. Something is hiding in plain sight here. But what?

(you can telnet from a standard windows machine by hitting start-->run, entering "cmd" and clicking OK, and entering (in this case) "telnet time.nist.gov 78". But if you're reading this site you probably already know that).

H/T Boing Boing.

Update: The letters would seem to be the answers to a word game; an example of real live people playing it can be found here. But why run this as a service on a government server? And it gives the same answer for each letter, so the answers themselves can't be important. And what are the numbers that follow?


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