Sunday, March 03, 2013

The Numbers Station Movie

A new movie called The Numbers Station, starring John Cusack and Malin Akerman, will be released in April. When Black Ops agent Emerson (John Cusack) is put aside, he's reassigned to a seemingly boring job. He should protect a remote CIA shortwave numbers station.

The station sends encrypted numbers messages through SW radio to agents in the field. Katherine (Malin Akerman) works at the station and is responsible for encrypting and announcing the messages over radio. What looked like a dull job turns into a nightmare when the station is ambushed and both have to fight for their life. Meanwhile, they discover that a series of messages has been sent to start a series of assassination.

To the layman, the story line might sound like absurd spy fiction. The truth, however, although seemingly less spectacular, is just as scary. Numbers Stations have been around since the Second World War and their use has grown exponential during the Cold War. They are more than real.

For those who think the Cold War is far behind us, think again! These stations still broadcast today in English, Russian, Chinese, Spanish and many other languages. The messages are destined to Intelligence personnel in foreign countries, Special Ops teams behind enemy lines, sleeper agents and...who knows. Several spies who received their operational instructions through numbers stations have been caught and convicted... also very recently.

Some believe that such shortwave espionage broadcasts are a thing of the past. However, these broadcasts have nothing but advantages. The operational messages are converted into numbers and encrypted before they are sent over shortwave radio. The shortwave broadcast travels around the world and no one can tell who is listening to them. Anyone with a small commercial SW radio can receive the message and decrypt it manually with a unique (mathematically unbreakable) one-time pad. No compromising equipment to be carried by the agent, no insecure communications channels to be used, unbreakable encryption. And even when all communications, telephone and Internet are down or unavailable, the messages still arrive. It's the ideal one-way method to send instructions.

Visit my website for more info on Numbers Stations and check out my one-time pad page, which explains how such numbers messages are composed and encrypted. Some very recent U.S. spy cases are documented in the paper Cuban Agent Communications. More on Numbers Stations and related spy cases is found on this weblog. Read about the movie at the Internet Movie Database or watch the trailer below.


Anonymous said...

Hmm, you didn't see the film, did you? It actually doesn't have anything to do with numbers stations. Oh, it tries to, but apparently the screenwriter couldn't even have been bothered to read the Wikipedia article on one time pad cryptography, much less to perform any independent research. Near the center of the plot is the protagonists' attempt to "reverse" the cypher used to generate the numbers broadcast by the station. Excuse me? There is no cypher to reverse. One time pads don't use cryptography (other than a simple character substitution based on modular addition); they rely on the existence of two (and only two) copies of truly random numbers that are used, respectively, to encode and decode the cleartext, never to be used again. If the numbers are truly random, there is no possibility of reversing the process. And a remote station like the one portrayed would not actually be encrypting the messages...that defeats the purpose of the one time pad because the message would have to be transmitted to the station from the message's originator (like Langley) either in cleartext or in a conventional cypher (which COULD theoretically be broken). And, besides, numbers stations have used artificial voices since at least the 70s.

In the sense of cryptography, this movie is so bad it's not even wrong.

Dirk Rijmenants said...

Hi Anonymous. Thanks for your comments. I believe you're missing the point of the movie, and that is entertainment. If we talk about cryptology, we should also break down Dan Brown's books, scrap U-571 Enigma and many more history and technology movies. After all, it's not a documentary. You did review the movie, and not cryptology, or not?

The movie is a good way to make people curious, but in the end, as with all things, the viewers can search themselves for the story behind the numbers stations.

You might want to carefully read my post on this, and find the links to my website, Cipher Machines and Cryptology, which has the most comprehensive information about one-time pads you'll ever find, but also about numbers stations and above all, cryptography and crypto equipment (without the ntertainment). It would have saved you all the work of explaining how one-tme pad works ;-)

I'm sure that every intelligent movie viewer who wants to get facts will be wise enough to see documentaries. As for the others, they migh have an hour of fun and... who knows, they maybe get to learn something when they are a bit curious and look beyond the Hollywood show. In the sense of cryptography, this movie is so good they mitgh even go to my Book Review page and start reading Kahn's The Codebreakers :-)

Anonymous said...

I fully appreciate your knowledge of the field, which is why I didn't question that knowledge, but rather whether you saw the movie :)

And I see your point about creative license. But in good fiction, whether on the screen or on the page, the suspension or disbelief should be established very early, and everything from that point on should logically follow, no matter how outlandish. That's why even science fiction and fantasy movies are more believable, in a fashion, than techno-spy-thrillers whose creators are too lazy to even learn the facts before getting them all wrong.

And you are correct about U-571 getting it wrong. It was worse there, in a fashion, because a misguided sense of patriotism made the writers credit American soldiers with doing something that was actually done by the Polish and British side (the former providing the first hardware replicas, and the latter doing the cryptanalysis that was needed to break the daily code).

Recently such a false sense of patriotism also ruined Argo for me, by cutting out the very significant role of the Canadians entirely. I think the real story would have been far more dramatic on the silver screen than the neutered one Argo became, what with all the shuffling of the diplomats from safe house to safe house with the Iranians pretty much on their heels. And the Americans of the 1970s were not shy about their gratitude to the Canadians for their help -- for months afterwards, banners thanking Canada dotted sporting and other public events.

As to Dan Brown's books and movies...if you suspend your disbelief at the outset about the existence of secret societies and massive conspiracies and such, the rest follows pretty nicely, though the codes are more puzzles than true cryptography (and in the books, many of them are quite solvable, which is fun and feels rewarding).

I suppose I am annoyed at The Numbers Station (and films like U-571 and Argo) because they presuppose that the audience is really quite stupid, and I find that insulting. Give the audience some credit for their intelligence, and the audience will give you much room in which to establish the suspension of disbelief.

Dirk Rijmenants said...


I fully understand your point of view. I knew the Argo case long before the movie and indeed, it is another Hollywood example of giving a twist on a story and indeed, the Canadians were forgotte, just as they did with the Poles, British and unfortunately with a bunch of other countries.

However, do I see here an oppertunity lost by the Canadians or Poles, to name a few, to bring these stories correctly to the public? I know, it's not obvious to play against the Hollywood world domination, but in recent years some pretty good foreign movies has their share of succes.

Unfortunately, at the end, commercial laws demand pennies in the bucked when a movie is released, and spectacular is more important than accurate. I am an advocate of those alternative excellent movies but the general public won't stand in line to see something like the brilliant Das Leben Der Anderen (The Lives of Others), to name one.

Intelligent people will go see both commercial Hollywood stuff and the better - altervative - movies. The less "critical" viewer (less intelligent is a bit harsh) will also go for the commercial stuff, but I hardly see those enjoy an alternative movie on their saturday evening. For them, I presume, is a movie like The Numbers Station pretty alternative.

I know that many in the crypto / intel / sigint community were long waiting for such a movie about numbers stations and it is no surprise that, now that we have one, it is - in crypto sense- a commercial lightweight. Indeed, as it comes to story line, even I could have writting a much more realistic story, say about a Cuban agent who's whole operation, existence and final arrest depended on numbers messages, or a, East-German who risks his live and the freedom of his relatives to get information across the Iron Curtain. Since this actually happened, it would be easier to get such story together. Moreover, there are many such truly exciting stories, ready to be told.

An opportunity missed? Yes, I agree with you! But missed by whom? Hollywood or the others, who didn't made a movie at all?

As with any fals accusations or twisted facts, the first one is heard and any corrections afterwards are hard to sell and hardly noticed. To end with your final comments, I don't feel insulted by the low Hollywood standards because I, and you, are smart enough to see the difference between cheap entertainment (I sometimes really do enjoy) and a decent movie. However, I think it's more an insult to the less critical thinking audience to feed them with incorrect facts, more in a sense like some commercials that use plain lies "because they are gullible anyway, as long as we can sell it".

It would be great if all movies would be well researched and keep the facts straight. The same goes for the crap most of today's reporters write, for that matter. Alas, you and I would probable sit in the cinema room on our own, and newspapers would go broke on paying investigative journalists and photographers, rather than using "twitter & facebook research" and cell phone wannay Pulitzers. Tje latter irritates me more, since movies are entertainment anyway, while press should set standards in accuracy.

Anyway, it's a pleasure discussing this with you. I see we are like-minded, I just think we're bringing drops to the see trying to fight screewriters' stupidity, so I just switch my brain in the off-mode and enjoy. And maybe, maybe, some less critical viewer has the common sense to use google afterwards to find a better version of the story (although the younger generation apparently mixes movies and facebook with history and reality)

PS: I hope they read all these comments, get a Aha moment and start surfing :-)

Anonymous said...

All very true. I guess I'm just frustrated that for every excellent film like "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," we have to go through a dozen mediocre ones.

What you just said about the intel community yearning for a storyline involving numbers stations just jogged my memory about something -- the TV show "The Americans" regularly shows the protagonists listening to a numbers station on their shortwave set and decoding messages using OTPs. No drama about it, it's just one of the many things they do, as it should be. The show has some flaws, but in terms of showing some basic tradecraft, it does much better than most spy films. One area where it shines is showing the complexities of agent handling. It's a nice change of pace to see a show with such an emphasis on humint (and I don't mean superspies kicking butt, though I am a sucker for Bond and Bourne flicks and the like), particularly in an age where shows like NCIS and 24 have conditioned audiences to expect technogizmo wonders in every scene. The humint side of the business is about human relationships, after all.

By the way, thanks for pointing me in the direction of The Lives of Others. I haven't seen it, but the synopsis looks good, and I love a good Cold War spy flick (or book for that matter). I spend a lot of time traveling, and many good films slip completely off my radar.

It's been a pleasure.

Big J said...

You are both correct. Dirk, I found your blog through a google search after reading Wikipedia articles. How else would anyone know about the London Poacher?

Anonymous is correct. There is no way to "reverse" anything unless the pad pages are designated in advance. Unless of course the communications protocol was known by the hero and heroin. To the movie itself might not have been accurate but I found it to be excellent entertainment. And it got me interested enough to look for "numbers stations".

PS I wonder, Dirk, if you could comment on some of my favorite movies, both with Robert Redford as it turns out--"3 Days of the Condor", based on the book 6 Days of the Condor and then again "Spy Games". I won't even consider his "Sneakers" as anything close to reality lol.

Dirk Rijmenants said...

I think that Xpy games is quite a bit more realistic than 3 days of the condor. I'm planning to see tThe Americans, which reportedly give a pretty accurate account of the modus operandi of spies. As fore novels, John LeCarre, Graham Greene, Alan Furst, Robert Littell, Len Deighton annd such are some of my favorites. In contrast to Tom Clancey they all show a glamourless, raw spy game without heros, and mostly only victims. Nevertheless, I do like a good Clancey once in a while.