In a world of mobile phones, satellites and the internet, some old school technology is making a major comeback. The shortwave radio, used by spies for decades to send encrypted messages, is being resurrected for the war in Ukraine.
According to Dr. Andrew Hammond, curator and historian at Washington, D.C.’s International Spy Museum, the shortwave radio “is a classic tool that was used for espionage.
“With a shortwave radio like this, you can transmit information over huge distances,” he told CTV National News.
But now, decades later, shortwave is coming back into use.
After Russia attacked communication towers in Ukraine, the BBC went old school, broadcasting their news service on the shortwave frequency to counter Russian propaganda about the war.
“The BBC is using it to transmit it because it’s a lot harder to block those transmissions,” John Figliozzi, a shortwave radio expert and author of the book ‘The Worldwide Listening Guide,’ told CTV National News. “It’s an old technology, but it works.”
Used in conflict zones, shortwave is less complicated than other communication avenues, and travels further than TV or cell phones.
Radio waves are electromagnetic signals that can be broadcast and for others to tune into by tuning a radio to the correct frequency, such as tuning your car radio into AM or FM chanels.
Shortwave radios tune into a range of frequencies that includes all of the high frequency bands, among others. When shortwave transmissions are directed at an angle into the sky, they bounce off of a layer of atoms in the atmosphere called the ionosphere, allowing them to travel beyond the horizon, much farther than other radio waves that are limited by having to transmit in a straight line.
Over the past few months, amateur radio hobbyists have used shortwave to pick up Russian soldiers openly discussing battle plans. Anti war protestors have also used it to ‘troll’ the Russian military, by blasting the Ukrainian national anthem or jamming their channels with annoying ear worms.
“Just from this little box,” Hammond said. “And during the Cold War, this little box came into its own.”
While shortwave was used back in the First World War, it became more widespread in the Cold War era, when the U.S. and the Soviet Union were highly invested in hearing each other’s secret communications and hiding their own.
Shortwave changed the way spies communicate, sending cryptic messages on so-called number stations which were traced to governments all over the world.
If you tuned in to one of these number stations at the right time, a mysterious monotone voice would read out what seemed to be random numbers.
One of the ways to understand these transmissions was by using a cipher key called a one-time pad, which allowed the intended recipient to crack the code.
And it’s still used by modern day Russian spies, including a husband and wife team who had been posing as Canadians for two decades and were arrested in Boston in 2010, inspiring the hit series, ‘The Americans’.
“The shortwave radio is unbreakable,” Hammond said. “So you know that’s a pretty powerful tool.”
But could shortwave make a difference in Ukraine?
“You know necessity is the mother of invention right?” said Figliozzi. “If you need to get through, you’re going to try anything.”
Sending signals and listening — with a tool from the past, reborn.