I am a lover of all things esoteric, slightly creepy and unabashedly bizarre, so when I heard an NPR report in 2014 about the mysterious Webdriver Torso YouTube channel and its possible connection to Cold War era numbers stations, I definitely wanted to learn more. For those of you who missed all the hoopla five years ago, Webdriver Torso was a YouTube channel which first appeared in March, 2013 that was nothing more than a compilation of short clips of moving red and blue rectangles accompanied by random tones. Nobody knew what the mysterious channel was used for, and it was only a matter of time before conspiracy theorists began weaving crazy tales about the oddly named phenomenon. It didn’t help matters that the channel operated for almost a year before people found it, or that there were thousands of uploads to the site in a short amount of time and speculation ran rampant. Was it a digital numbers station? Was it linked to the mysterious Cicaida 3301 organization? Was it a form of alien communication? These wild ideas were fueled by three videos that didn’t fit the mold of the others — one was a video that played a red and blue silhouette of Rick Astley singing “Never Gonna Give You Up” (a sly nod to the rickrolling phoneomenon), one video showed the Eiffel Tower lit up at night with a cryptic comment stating “Matei is highly intelligent” and the last was a video which led to a paywall and an Aqua Teen Hunger Force video. Eventually, YouTube responded that Webdrive Torso was a software program they use to test audio and video quality to make sure everything is in sync for its users. I looked into the conspiracy theories out of curiosity (I have NO IDEA what Cicaida 3301 is and I’m pretty sure I don’t want to know) and the one I found most intriguing was the idea that Webdriver Torso was an online numbers station. Given the fact that numbers stations were meant to be virtually untraceable, which cannot be said of anything online, I can say with certainty that Webdriver Torso isn’t used in spycraft..
Numbers stations were first discovered during World War I and were used extensively in Europe throughout the Cold War, presumably as a means of spycraft, although no government has ever actually admitted this. They were shortwave radio transmissions, and as such, the signals could be transmitted from anywhere in the world to anywhere in the world by bouncing radio waves off the upper atmosphere. A deep cover agent in Missoula, Montana could be contacted by their handler in Moscow as long as they knew the frequency and the time to tune in; they then used their one time cipher pads to decode the long lists of numbers to determine their assignments, after which they burned their cipher keys, rendering the code virtually unbreakable. I can only imagine coming across a numbers station in the dead of night, circa 1980, and listening in terrified wonder to a disembodied voice rattling off a list of random numbers into the void in a foreign language. Although most of the most well known numbers stations faded into obscurity after the Cold War ended, I’m sure the North Koreans still use them, among others. To paraphrase an article I recently read, as long as human beings are human and nosy, there will always be spies, even amongst allies (if not, how could anyone believe in collusion?). In fact, as late as 2015, the University of Twente’s online shortwave radio detected a new signal called HM01, which is eerily reminiscent of the old Atencion numbers station run out of Havana. The Atencion station was the only one I’ve read about whose discovery led to the prosecution of foreign nationals as well as an American, former DIA senior Cuba analyst turned spy Ana Belan Montes (she admitted her guilt and claimed it was because she was upset with our treatment of Cuba-she was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2002). Online resources such as The Conet Project, and Priyom have catalogued historic numbers stations and searched for modern ones, and there are numerous YouTube channels dedicated to this creepy blast from the past. Pop culture references to numbers stations abound, including a creepy episode of Fringe, at least one episode of The Americans, and a Wilco song bearing the title of this post. Given our current political climate, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are kooks out there who would believe that President Trump runs a numbers station with a direct line to Vladimir Putin out of a secret room at the White House. Then again, maybe I shouldn’t commit that to print – do we really need another conspiracy theory on our hands?