The Numbers Stations

The Numbers Stations, Documentary BBC Radio4.

As a kid, I used to scan the radio waves at night, trying to find something different or unusual. I even added extra cable to the aerial in an effort to pick up more signal from further away (I don’t know if it worked, I never examined the physics of it!). The heaviside layer moves up as the solar wind is blocked, allowing radio transmissions to travel further. I’d sit there, sometimes with the curtains closed, sometimes with the light off and the curtains open, looking out at the stars, or the glow of Dublin city on the horizon, slowly moving the dial across the bands, the hiss of FM, the whee-whurr-whucks of medium wave, the vast emptiness of long wave.

Sometimes you’d pick up the Dublin based pirate stations on the FM band. Very occasionally, I could hear taxi conversations on their radios at the very end of the FM band, which was fascinating. It felt like I was some sort of spy, eavesdropping on secret chats deep in the night.

Long Wave was dominated by the local Atlantic 252 station, and RTE1 which broadcast on LW at the time.

AM always had a sprinkling of european stations, in all sorts of languages, mostly French and German. Picking out each station from the fuzz of interference, nudging the dial fractions at a time to get a better signal. It also had bizarre stations that broadcast pips, strange sounds and otherworldly noises.

Maybe one of them was a numbers station, sending it’s signal out to some secret agent in Cold War Europe. Who knows? I hadn’t heard of them at the time, it was only years later that I found out about them on the internet. I’m strangely drawn to these enigmatic voices broadcasting out into the ether, with their intriguing names: “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot”, “Russian Man”, “The Lincolnshire Poacher”. I find myself picturing some spy furtively writing down the numbers before using a one time pad to reveal the message they’d been sent.

Even more sinister are the mechanical broadcasts from the Russian station known as UVB-76 (listen), rumoured to be part of a ‘dead-hand’ doomsday device created in the 1970’s. The idea is that even in the event that a surprise first strike that took out all the top Soviet leadership, retaliation would be guaranteed by whatever nuclear forces remained. A chilling concept indeed. Although, as Kubrick pointed out in Dr. Strangelove:

Dr. Strangelove: The whole point of the doomsday machine is lost…if you keep it a secret! Why didn’t you tell the world, eh?!

Russian Ambassador: It was to be announced at the Party Congress on Monday. As you know, the Premier loves surprises.

Dr. Strangelove

Big Data requires Big Laws

There’s no such thing as being ‘offline’ anymore. It’s almost impossible, I’d say, to live any sort of normal life without having your data on some machine somewhere. And if you engage in any way with other people, then you use at least email, and probably some sort of social network. There’s no escape now from having your personal and private information up there on the ‘net’ in some shape or form. The old retort of ‘if you don’t want people to see it, don’t go online’ has become a kind of joke.

Who has access to your data? Who’s administering the many sites and machines it resides on? Is there ‘adequate’ and ‘reasonable’ security procedures and processes in place? How can you tell anyway? And who in government can access that information and for what purpose?

We need strong and transparent laws, backed up with oversight, checks and balances, before this just gets completely out of hand. There’s still an attitude in some quarters that this is all irrelevant, that being online is somehow optional in this day and age, and worst of all, that if “you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear“. Which is bull. Privacy is a basic right, not an option.

Social networking forum reddit on Thursday removed a section from its site used to tacitly inform users it had never received a certain type of U.S. government surveillance request, suggesting the platform is now being asked to hand over customer data under a secretive law enforcement authority.

Source: Reddit deletes surveillance ‘warrant canary’ in transparency report

Police speak to boy, 10, due to spelling error

As a result, the child was interviewed on 7 December by police and the authorities examined a laptop found at his family home.

His family has since demanded the school and police apologise, according to the BBC.

A cousin of the boy, who has not been named to protect his identity, said his relatives initially thought it was a joke, but that the boy had been traumatised by the experience.

“You can imagine it happening to a 30-year-old man, but not to a young child,” she told the BBC. “If the teacher had any concerns it should have been about his spelling.”

“They shouldn’t be putting a child through this.”

“He’s now scared of writing, using his imagination.”

If you have nothing to hide, you still have everything to fear.

MI5 report challenges views on terrorism in Britain

Well now, that’s interesting…

MI5 has concluded that there is no easy way to identify those who become involved in terrorism in Britain, according to a classified internal research document on radicalisation seen by the Guardian.

The sophisticated analysis, based on hundreds of case studies by the security service, says there is no single pathway to violent extremism.

It concludes that it is not possible to draw up a typical profile of the “British terrorist” as most are “demographically unremarkable” and simply reflect the communities in which they live.

The “restricted” MI5 report takes apart many of the common stereotypes about those involved in British terrorism.

They are mostly British nationals, not illegal immigrants and, far from being Islamist fundamentalists, most are religious novices. Nor, the analysis says, are they “mad and bad”.

Those over 30 are just as likely to have a wife and children as to be loners with no ties, the research shows.

The security service also plays down the importance of radical extremist clerics, saying their influence in radicalising British terrorists has moved into the background in recent years.

The research, carried out by MI5’s behavioural science unit, is based on in-depth case studies on “several hundred individuals known to be involved in, or closely associated with, violent extremist activity” ranging from fundraising to planning suicide bombings in Britain.