От Denis Mosko (2:5023/24.1315) к alexander koryagin
ak> "MDZhB" has been broadcasting since 1982. No one knows why.
ak> In the middle of a Russian swampland, not far from the city of St
ak> Petersburg, is a rectangular iron gate. Beyond its rusted bars is a
ak> collection of radio towers, abandoned buildings and power lines bordered
ak> by a dry-stone wall. This sinister location is the focus of a mystery
ak> which stretches back to the height of the Cold War.
ak> It is thought to be the headquarters of a radio station, "MDZhB", that
ak> no-one has ever claimed to run. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a
ak> week, for the last three-and-a-half decades, it's been broadcasting a
ak> dull, monotonous tone. Every few seconds it's joined by a second sound,
ak> like some ghostly ship sounding its foghorn. Then the drone continues.
ak> Once or twice a week, a man or woman will read out some words in
ak> Russian, such as "dinghy" or "farming specialist". And that's it.
ak> Anyone, anywhere in the world can listen in, simply by tuning a radio to
ak> the frequency 4625 kHz.
ak> It's so enigmatic, it's as if it was designed with conspiracy theorists
ak> in mind. Today the station has an online following numbering in the tens
ak> of thousands, who know it affectionately as "the Buzzer". It joins two
ak> similar mystery stations, "the Pip" and the "Squeaky Wheel". As their
ak> fans readily admit themselves, they have absolutely no idea what they
ak> are listening to.
ak> In fact, no-one does. "There's absolutely no information in the signal,"
ak> says David Stupples, an expert in signals intelligence from City
ak> University, London.
ak> What's going on?
ak> The frequency is thought to belong to the Russian military, though
ak> they've never actually admitted this. It first began broadcasting at the
ak> close of the Cold War, when communism was in decline. Today it's
ak> transmitted from two locations - the St Petersburg site and a location
ak> near Moscow. Bizarrely, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, rather
ak> than shutting down, the station's activity sharply increased.
ak> There's no shortage of theories to explain what the Buzzer might be for
ak> - ranging from keeping in touch with submarines to communing with
ak> aliens. One such idea is that it's acting as a "Dead Hand" signal; in
ak> the event Russia is hit by a nuclear attack, the drone will stop and
ak> automatically trigger a retaliation. No questions asked, just total
ak> nuclear obliteration on both sides.
ak> This may not be as wacky as it sounds. The system was originally
ak> pioneered in the Soviet era, where it took the form of a computer system
ak> which scanned the airwaves for signs of life or nuclear fallout.
ak> Alarmingly, many experts believe it may still be in use. As Russian
ak> president Vladimir Putin pointed out himself earlier this year, "nobody
ak> would survive" a nuclear war between Russia and the United States. Could
ak> the Buzzer be warding one off?
ak> As it happens, there are clues in the signal itself. Like all
ak> international radio, the Buzzer operates at a relatively low frequency
ak> known as "shortwave". This means that - compared to local radio, mobile
ak> phone and television signals - fewer waves pass through a single point
ak> every second. It also means they can travel a lot further.
ak> While you'd be hard pressed to listen to a local station such as BBC
ak> Radio London in a neighbouring county, shortwave stations like the BBC
ak> World Service are aimed at audiences from Senegal to Singapore. Both
ak> stations are broadcast from the same building.
ak> Nuclear weapon test at Bikini Atoll (Credit: Public Domain/ US DoD)
ak> If the "dead hand" system did not detect signs of a preserved military
ak> hierarchy it would automatically trigger a retaliation (Credit: Public
ak> Domain/ US DoD)
ak> It's all thanks to "skywaves". Higher frequency radio signals can only
ak> travel in a straight line, eventually becoming lost as they bump into
ak> obstacles or reach the horizon. But shortwave frequencies have an extra
ak> trick - they can bounce off charged particles in the upper atmosphere,
ak> allowing them to zig-zag between the earth and the sky and travel
ak> thousands, rather than tens, of miles.
ak> Which brings us back to the Dead Hand theory. As you might expect,
ak> shortwave signals have proved extremely popular. Today they're used by
ak> ships, aircraft and the military to send messages across continents,
ak> oceans and mountain ranges. But there's a catch.
ak> The lofty layer isn't so much a flat mirror, but a wave, which undulates
ak> like the surface of the ocean. During the day it moves steadily higher,
ak> while at night, it creeps down towards the Earth. If you want to
ak> absolutely guarantee that your station can be heard on the other side of
ak> the planet - and if you're using it as a cue for nuclear war, you
ak> probably do - it's important to change the frequency depending on the
ak> time of day, to catch up. The BBC World Service already does this. The
ak> Buzzer doesn't.
ak> Another idea is that the radio station exists to "sound" out how far
ak> away the layer of charged particles is. "To get good results from the
ak> radar systems the Russians use to spot missiles, you need to know this,"
ak> says Stupples. The longer the signal takes to get up into the sky and
ak> down again, the higher it must be.
ak> Alas, that can't be it either. To analyse the layer's altitude the
ak> signal would usually have a certain sound, like a car alarm going off -
ak> the result of varying the waves to get them just right. "They sound
ak> nothing like the Buzzer," says Stupples.
ak> Intriguingly, there is a station with some striking similarities. The
ak> "Lincolnshire Poacher" ran from the mid-1970s to 2008. Just like the
ak> Buzzer, it could be heard on the other side of the planet. Just like the
ak> Buzzer, it emanated from an undisclosed location, thought to be
ak> somewhere in Cyprus. And just like the Buzzer, its transmissions were
ak> just plain creepy.
ak> At the beginning of every hour, the station would play the first two
ak> bars of an English folk tune, the Lincolnshire Poacher.
ak> "Oh 'tis my delight on a shining night
ak> In the season of the year
ak> When I was bound apprentice in famous Lincolnshire
ak> 'Twas well I served my master for nigh on seven years..."
ak> After repeating this12 times, it would move on to messages read by the
ak> disembodied voice of a woman reading groups of five numbers -
ak> "1-2-0-3-6" - in a clipped, upper-class English accent.
ak> To get to grips with what was going on, it helps to go back to the
ak> 1920s. The All-Russian Co-operative Society (Arcos) was an important
ak> trade body, responsible for overseeing transactions between the UK and
ak> the early Soviet Union. Or at least, that's what they said they did.
ak> In May 1927, years after a British secret agent caught an employee
ak> sneaking into a communist news office in London, police officers stormed
ak> the Arcos building. The basement had been rigged with anti-intruder
ak> devices and they discovered a secret room with no door handle, in which
ak> workers were hurriedly burning documents.
ak> It may have been dramatic, but the British didn't discover anything that
ak> they didn't already know. Instead the raid was a wake-up call to the
ak> Soviets, who discovered that MI5 had been listening in on them for years.
ak> "This was a blunder of the very first order," says Anthony Glees, who
ak> directs the Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies at the
ak> University of Buckingham. To justify the raid, the prime minister had
ak> even read out some of the deciphered telegrams in the House of Commons.
ak> The upshot was that the Russians completely reinvented the way messages
ak> are encrypted. Almost overnight, they switched to "one-time pads". In
ak> this system, a random key is generated by the person sending the message
ak> and shared only with the person receiving it. As long as the key really
ak> is perfectly random, the code cannot be cracked. There was no longer any
ak> need to worry about who could hear their messages.
ak> Enter the "numbers stations" - radio stations that broadcast coded
ak> messages to spies all over the world. Soon even the British were doing
ak> it: if you can't beat them, join 'em, as they say. It's quite difficult
ak> to generate a completely random number because a system for doing so
ak> will, by its very nature, be predictable - exactly what you're trying to
ak> avoid. Instead officers in London found an ingenious solution.
ak> They'd hang a microphone out of the window on Oxford Street and record
ak> the traffic. "There might be a bus beeping at the same time as a
ak> policeman shouting. The sound is unique, it will never happen again,"
ak> says Stupples. Then they'd convert this into a random code.
ak> Of course, that didn't stop people trying to break them. During World
ak> War Two, the British realised that they could, in fact, decipher the
ak> messages - but they'd have to get their hands on the one-time pad that
ak> was used to encrypt them. "We discovered that the Russians used the
ak> out-of-date sheets of one-time pads as substitute toilet paper in
ak> Russian army hospitals in East Germany," says Glees. Needless to say,
ak> British intelligence officers soon found themselves rifling through the
ak> contents of Soviet latrines.
ak> The new channel of communication was so useful, it didn't take long
ak> before the numbers stations had popped up all over the world. There was
ak> the colourfully named "Nancy Adam Susan", "Russian Counting Man" and
ak> "Cherry Ripe" - the Lincolnshire Poacher's sister station, which also
ak> contained bars of an English folk song. In name at least, the Buzzer
ak> fits right in.
ak> It also fits with a series of arrests across the United States back in
ak> 2010. The FBI announced that it had broken up a "long term, deep cover"
ak> network of Russian agents, who were said to have received their
ak> instructions via coded messages on shortwave radio - specifically 7887 kHz.
ak> Now North Korea are getting in on the act, too. On 14 April 2017, the
ak> broadcaster at Radio Pyongyang began: "I'm giving review works in
ak> elementary information technology lessons of the remote education
ak> university for No 27 expedition agents." This ill-concealed military
ak> message was followed by a series of page numbers - No 69 on page 823,
ak> page 957 - which look a lot like code.
ak> It may come as a surprise that numbers stations are still in use - but
ak> they hold one major advantage. Though it's possible to guess who is
ak> broadcasting, anyone can listen to the messages - so you don't know who
ak> they are being sent to. Mobile phones and the internet may be quicker,
ak> but open a text or email from a known intelligence agency and you could
ak> be rumbled.
ak> It's a compelling idea: the Buzzer has been hiding in plain sight,
ak> instructing a network of illicit Russian spies all over the world.
ak> There's just one problem. The Buzzer never broadcasts any numbered messages.
ak> This doesn't strictly matter, since one-time pads can be used to
ak> translate anything - from code words to garbled speech. "If this phone
ak> call was encrypted you'd hear "...enejekdhejenw...' but then it would
ak> come out the other side sounding like normal speech," says Stupples. But
ak> this would leave traces in the signal.
ak> To send information over the radio, essentially all you're doing is
ak> varying the height or spacing of the waves being transmitted. For
ak> example, two low waves in a row means x, or three waves closer together
ak> means y. When a signal is carrying information, instead of neat, evenly
ak> spaced waves like ripples on the ocean, you're left with a wave like the
ak> jagged silhouette of an ECG.
ak> This isn't the Buzzer. Instead, many believe that the station is a
ak> hybrid of two things. The constant drone is just a marker, saying "this
ak> frequency is mine, this frequency is mine..." to stop people from using it.
ak> It only becomes a numbers station in moments of crisis, such as if
ak> Russia were invaded. Then it would function as a way to instruct their
ak> worldwide spy network and military forces on standby in remote areas.
ak> After all, this is a country around 70 times the size of the UK.
ak> It seems they're already been practicing. "In 2013 they issued a special
ak> message, 'COMMAND 135 ISSUED' that was said to be test message for full
ak> combat readiness," says Maris Goldmanis, a radio enthusiast who listens
ak> to the station from his home in the Baltic states.
ak> The mystery of the Russian radio may have been solved. But if its fans
ak> are right, let's just hope that drone never stops.
ak> Bye, all!
ak> Alexander Koryagin
* Origin: :) (2:5023/24.1315)
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