Science, Tech & Environment

Who or what is behind these strange videos uploaded to YouTube?

At 2:45 on September 23rd, 2013 an 11-second video was uploaded to YouTube by a user named Webdriver Torso.

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The videos were just a series of red, white and blue shapes and an eerie tone (see above).

Big deal, right?

Then, 28 minutes later another 11 second video was uploaded.

This time the video had a new series of shapes and tones. 

Then another, and another was uploaded, for eight solid months. And more than 77,000 videos later the uploading suddenly stopped.

The Internet has been buzzing: Who is Webdriver Torso?  What do the shapes mean? And what’s with the tone?

“This series of videos is doing exactly what it's designed to do,” said Akin Fernandez.  Fernandez has been avidly watching Webdriver Torso's videos do what they do. As to what they mean, when I pressed Fernandez on what he thought he was purposefully vague.

“Something can do what it's meant to do without having any meaning,” he said.

Okay, fair enough. But one of the theories bouncing around the Internet is that these YouTube broadcasts of colors and shapes and tone are a digital, 21st century version of a number station. A number what, you say?

Number stations are mysterious broadcasts you can pick up all over the world on short wave radio. They're usually fairly simple.  Just a bit of music, maybe a gong or a tone and then a string of numbers spoken by an anonymous voice in English, Russian, Chinese, or German. Fernandez has been archiving and publishing number station transmissions for his series, the Conet Project.

“The voices start or the tones start and you can tell that it's not an ordinary station because ordinary stations tell you who they are, they give the call letters and say the country they’re from, they give pleasant music; but with number stations it's totally different,” said Fernandez.

No one has ever been able to explain who is broadcasting, who is reading the numbers, who is behind all of this. But many, including Fernandez have concluded that these numbers are codes being transmitted to government spies. 

“Yes indeed there are still mysteries in the world, there are no places in the world that the man hasn't been, but this is something that man is doing that nobody knows about,” said Fernandez.

Okay, so back to the mysterious YouTube videos. Sorry, says Fernandez, there’s no way these were created to serve spies in the field. The beauty of a number station is that a spy, if these broadcasts are indeed intended for spies, can tune into a transmission from anywhere.

But a YouTube video is not as easily anonymous. Any spy could potentially give away their location as soon they clicked to watch the code.

“One person suggested aliens but of course he's being facetious,” said Isaul Vargas, a software test engineer.

When Vargas saw the videos, he immediately thought about a recent conference that he had attended. “It reminded me of something I saw at a presentation,” said Vargas.

The presentation was on software testing. Webdriver Torso shares its name with a tool for running tests on websites. Vargas' theory is that this is nothing more than someone testing video encoding software. 

Still no one has come out to claim the videos.

Meanwhile Webdriver Torso is back at it. A week ago six new videos were uploaded, then nothing. And a cheeky Webdriver Torso has nodded to his new found audience - now more than 15,000 strong - by leaving a cryptic message. Video number 1,182 is a six second clip of the Eiffel Tower light show filmed, perhaps, from a balcony in Paris. In the comment section, Webdriver wrote: "Mattei is highly intelligent."

Vargas now thinks that Webdriver Torso may be a programmer in Paris.