May 12, 2014
NSA’s Mysterious Coded Tweet Decrytpted
Combine our taste for weird stuff on the Internet with current suspicion of the NSA due to Edward Snowden‘s revelations about their sneaky, underhanded behavior, and the agency’s recent coded tweet naturally got the Internet all atwitter, if you will.
The tweet read “tpfccdlfdtte pcaccplircdt dklpcfrp?qeiq lhpqlipqeodf gpwafopwprti izxndkiqpkii krirrifcapnc dxkdciqcafmd vkfpcadf,” which, as the Washington Post noted, looked like either a bad pocket tweet or something terribly exciting.
In the end, it was neither. It was a reasonably clever ploy by the NSA to attract attention to their recruitment program, and with a fairly simple decoding, the tweet was revealed to read, “want to know what it takes to work at nsa? check back each monday as we explore careers essential to protecting your nation.” The code used was one of the most basic, namely a simple substitution cipher, where — in the code — each letter of the alphabet is exchanged for another. It could be done by just jumbling up the alphabet, and if “p” happened to be the first letter, it would be “a,” if “h” were the fourth letter, it would be “d,” etc.
The Washington Post went on to say that there is much more weird, interesting stuff going on out on the web. One such thing is “Webdriver Torso.” Webdriver is a YouTube channel of unknown origin whose videos simply have patterns of red and blue boxes moving around the screen and are all 11 seconds in length. The images are accompanied by very rudimentary music, basically just a few notes sounding like a platform game soundtrack from the days of green and black monochrome displays. The channel has had periods of inactivity, and then reappeared. There are almost 80,000 videos, astonishingly, so if somebody is doing it for a laugh and a hoax, then they are very committed.
There is speculation that this is a modern version of a numbers station, which it is believed were used by spies to transmit coded messages during the Cold War. Numbers stations were broadcast on shortwave radio and were a sequence usually of numbers, but sometimes letters, from an automated voice or sometimes read out by a real person. No government ever officially confirmed their use for espionage purposes, but it is fairly well accepted that transmitting messages to spies was their purpose, and, like Webdriver Torso videos, the sheer volume of messages flying around is evidence against them being a hoax. The BBC interviewed a member of Britain’s intelligence agency GCHQ, who verified that numbers stations were used by spies, and said that “when the Ceausescu regime collapsed, there was a cessation of broadcasts from Romania,” which seems to be fairly good evidence. Quite often, the super spookiness of the broadcasts would be further increased by the use of a child’s voice to read out the numbers.
I suppose numbers stations remind us that when it comes to mysteries and the Internet, we should treat it a bit like music, photography and film-making: not let the clutter cloud the fact that there really is some high quality stuff out there, plenty of it from before the days of the Internet.
Image Credit: Thinkstock