The Hunt For The Cold War Spy Radio Stations That Still Broadcast Today

“These coded messages might contain sinister information. They might be completely benign. It is unlikely we will ever know.”


Espionage is an enigmatic world filled covert communication tactics and secret weapons. But the strangest tool in the spy’s arsenal are Numbers Stations: Shortwave radio transmissions of seemingly random strings of numbers that are actually encrypted messages.


First documented during World War I and used at their height during the Cold War, Numbers Machines are spread across the globe and still broadcast numbers today, despite the fact that more advanced communication technology exists. What purpose do they serve? Do the numbers mean anything? And who’s even listening? In 2012, British documentary photographer Lewis Bush first learned about Numbers Stations and became engrossed in their mystery. By 2015 he had embarked on a research project for his book Shadows of the State, which dives into these puzzling broadcasts and the sites transmitting them. After launching on Kickstarter, the book is now available for pre-order.

“Inevitably there is something compelling about looking into something unknown, or which is somewhat off limits to you as these stations are intended to be,” Bush tells Co.Design in an email. “The sensation I often compare listening to these stations to is the feeling of looking down into very deep water, where you can’t see the bottom. You know something is down there, but you have no idea what, and the process of trying to find out is tinged with a sense of risk. These coded messages might contain sinister information. They might be completely benign. It is unlikely we will ever know.”

Shadows of the State dummy book. [Image: Lewis Bush]
To get a fuller understanding of Numbers Stations–which are still shrouded in mystery and conspiracy theory–Bush reviewed declassified communications and documents mentioning Numbers Stations to figure out where they are. Once he found them, used Google Earth to examine satellite photography of the sites and made high-res images of them. (Bush points out how meta this is since satellite photography was also developed as an intelligence gathering tool.) Then, he listens to broadcasts from the stations through his computer and creates visualizations of the radio frequencies called spectrograms, which reveal the unique characteristics of each broadcast. He’s assembled this all into the book, and is now developing an interactive website based on his research.

Bush hopes that studying these puzzling relics from history help us think more deeply about the current state of politics and international relations–which, today, seem to be as tense, fragile, and hostile as the Cold War.

“For me what is interesting about [Numbers Stations] is their potential to engage people with questions of accountability, to shine a light on a world which is extremely dark and unaccountable,” Bush tells Co.Design. “Whether you look at a Cold War dictatorship or a contemporary democracy, there is a real sense that some of these intelligence agencies operate like a state within the state, above oversight, and really beyond the control of politicians. People will point out that they need to be secret, and that these agencies play a role in protecting our way of life, and protecting democracy. But it seems an illogical and quite frightening line of reasoning to me that the only way to defend democracy is by having something inherently undemocratic at its core. And that, I think, is what the book is ultimately about.”

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.