Experts baffled by online video mystery
Nine months ago, thousands of strange videos of rectangles started appearing on YouTube. No one knows what they mean, but some think they might be a sinister secret code. Who is behind them?
An internet mystery has left thousands of people scratching their heads. Over the last nine months, 77,000 videos have been posted on YouTube. Each is an 11-second clip showing various sizes of red and blue rectangles on a white screen, accompanied by seemingly random electric tones. Then suddenly, two weeks ago, the flood of posts stopped. What does it all mean?
The uploader, known simply as ‘Webdriver Torso’, does not respond to messages. Some say that whoever he or she is, it could simply be a programmer experimenting with software, while others suggest that the whole thing is just an elaborate, pointless joke.
But another explanation is that the rectangles are a hidden code and the videos are like number stations. Throughout the cold war, number stations broadcast on shortwave radio frequencies. They often repeated creepy tunes and strings of numbers in different languages. Sometimes nothing would be broadcast on a frequency for days, and then a robotic voice would suddenly say some letters for a minute, and then silence again.
No one is completely certain what these number stations are for, but it is likely that they allow governments to send coded messages to spies operating abroad. Only two broadcasting stations have ever been located and both were in former military bases. Some number stations are still broadcasting these mysterious codes today.
There is speculation that these new video codes are a recruitment test. For the past three years, a group calling itself ‘Cicada 3301’ has been posting sets of complex puzzles online, claiming to be in search of the highly intelligent people who can solve them. The rumours suggest that the few who do find the solution are invited to join a secretive high-powered agency. The CIA? MI6? Could the ‘Webdriver Torso’ videos be a similar recruitment exercise?
So far, all that is certain is that the videos have a French connection. The BBC trawled through thousands of them and found one which needed a French credit card to be accessed, and another that showed the Eiffel Tower. But is it all a waste of time, or a fascinating online riddle?
A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma
Some say the videos are probably just a student’s art project, software tests, or even a joke, and that those looking for a deeper explanation are deluding themselves. The internet is full of quirks and videos that do not make sense, there is no reason to think that this is anything different.
But others argue that there are far too many videos for this to be a prank and that there must be some logic behind all of this. The riddle is a code for spies, an intricate futuristic language – or perhaps something even more sinister.
- Do you think the videos are a series of codes or are they meaningless?
- Is the existence of secret codes something that should concern us?
- In pairs, create a coded message for your classmates to solve. You could replace each letter of the alphabet with a number (for example: A=1, B=2), or make a sentence using only anagrams. Compare all your codes and choose the best three.
- Using the expert links research number stations and write a paragraph explaining what they might be for.
Some People Say...
“The greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places.’Roald Dahl”
What do you think?
Q & A
- Why would anyone care about a bunch of pointless rectangles?
- The videos could just be a big joke, but the tantalising point for many viewers is trying to understand why they exist. It is almost certain that number stations were involved in military activity and spying, and these videos could be similar. Many people simply want to make sense of the unknown.
- But aren’t these things almost always a waste of time?
- Coding experts sometimes like to play jokes on people by giving them a series of meaningless riddles which lead nowhere. But GCHQ, one of Britain’s intelligence agencies, has officially posted riddles online in the past in order to find the brightest mathematicians and coding experts. Many countries’ intelligence agencies similarly run elaborate online tests.
- There is a company called Selenium Webdriver which tests websites, but it says the videos are nothing to do with it.
- Cold war
- Between 1947 and 1991 there was a long period of severe tension between the Western bloc (USA, NATO and allies) and the Eastern bloc (the Soviet Union and allies in eastern Europe)
- Shortwave radio is used for long distance communication. The radio waves are reflected by the ionosphere, which allows them to travel round the curve of the Earth. Detecting a shortwave radio station is very difficult and the location of the person receiving the signal would remain unknown, which is perfect for spies.
- One site for broadcasts was a military base 40km outside of Moscow. The transmissions stopped in 2010 and when a group broke in to investigate, they found a log book suggesting it had been used to broadcast military orders.
- Number station enthusiasts report that while there are now fewer English and Russian transmissions, an increasing number seem to be broadcasting messages in Mandarin Chinese.