This article will introduce a number of techniques to detect if someone is conducting surveillance on you. Before we get started, I want to make it clear that my knowledge and experience in this come from the private sector, and not from any clandestine government agency work. Though the principles and techniques I’ll be discussing can be pretty effective across the board, I’m not trying to teach anyone how to detect government sector surveillance teams.
Since my own experience involves non-vehicular surveillance detection, this will be the focus of this article. The techniques I’ll be presenting here have been successfully tested during training and successfully applied in actual, real-life situations.
Now that we got that out of the way, let’s get into it:
Surveillance detection on yourself
If you want to detect surveillance covertly (which doesn’t always have to be the case, by the way), you’ll want to avoid a situation where you’re constantly looking behind you, or otherwise have your head on a swivel when you’re out and about. The way to avoid this is to narrowing down the areas you’ll be paying attention to, and to figure out what it is you should be looking for.
Where to look?
The short answer is that it depends on where you happen to be, and whether you’re static or mobile:
If you’re static, then there’s a good chance that surveillance on you is also going to be static. Let’s take the two most likely static locations where someone might be able to find you – your home and your workplace. These are very important because if you’re being deliberately targeted, it’s a safe bet to assume that you’ll be found at these two locations on a regular, or even routine basis. In order to figure out where surveillance might be, what you’ll want to do is put yourself in the shoes of a potential surveiller, and try to figure out where you would be in order to covertly observe, say, the front door or driveway to your residence, and the main entrance or parking lot entrance to your workplace. Don’t just theorize about this, go ahead and actually try it out in the field. Are there any conveniently located cafes, busy intersections, bus or train stations, park or city benches, etc, that can give you both a good views of the location and sufficient cover for an extended period of time? If so, those are probably the locations you’d want to narrow your attention to, rather than try to cover the entire area. You’d also want to pay attention to the vehicles that are parked in spots that could potentially give them a good view (which is especially important if the area doesn’t have any good vantage points like the above mentioned). For more information on this subject, please read this article.
When conducting mobile surveillance, things become a bit more tricky, since surveillance might also need to go mobile. When in motion, the surveiller will usually want to be somewhere behind their target, and possibly behind and to the side. As the target moves forward on a typical city sidewalk, we can imagine potential surveillance zones (one behind the target and one behind but on the opposite side of the street) that will be “dragged” behind the target as it moves forward.
One of the most challenging things about mobile surveillance is what the surveiller needs to do when the target inevitably stops (either for a short or long period of time). This is because the dynamics switch from mobile to static, and then probably back to mobile again. These transitional points present real challenges for a surveiller – and therefore a detection opportunity for you – since the surveiller has to quickly and unexpectedly figure out how to keep track of the target without displaying any signs of surprise, confusion or nervousness. I go into detail about this subject in my Mobile Surveillance article, and then my Mobile Surveillance Detection article.
How to spot surveillance
Now that we’ve started figuring out where to look, let’s talk about what to look for.
Surveillance is primarily detected by noticing correlations to the target. Since in this case, you yourself are the target, the challenge is to spot if someone is correlating to you even though they’re purposely trying to do this behind you, or at angles that are purposely outside your field of vision. If you don’t want to reveal the fact that you’re looking for surveillance, you’re going to have to find ways to briefly glance at the above mentioned surveillance vantage points (the static and mobile ones) in order to detect if the same individual might be correlating to you in observation, movement and/or presence. In other words, can you see if someone is looking at you, moving and stopping when you move and stop, or simply present somehow in different locations you happen to be in over time? This is a bit tricky because most of the people who might be in potential vantage points, or walking behind you on the street, are not trying to surveill you. What distinguishes a surveiller from any other person out there is their deliberate and consistent attempt to observe where you are and where you’re going. The active correlations to you that a surveiller would have to therefore exhibit – especially over time and distance – are the most important indicators that can set surveillers apart from the rest of the people around. It’s not always easy to spot these correlations, but with practice, you can definitely get better at it.
You can read more about this here and here.
The following techniques are designed to detect some of the classic indicators of surveillance. Keep in mind that this will probably not work if surveillance is conducted on a very high, government sector level or if you’re being surveilled by a coordinated team of operatives.
The good news is that you can practice these techniques anytime and anywhere you want – gradually getting better and more subtle at applying them.
Static surveillance detection:
- When you’re at your house, place of work, restaurant, bar, etc, try to find ways to look outside (through windows, entrances, etc), and see if you can spot anyone in a vantage point (or just lingering outside) who’s paying close attention to the entrance/exit you’re probably going to use.
- As you exit, use natural head movements and peripheral vision to see if anyone takes note of your exit, and is transitioning, or preparing to transition, from static to mobile – thereby correlating to your own transition.
Mobile surveillance detection:
- As you move forward, try to find creative ways to take short glances at the area behind you and behind but on the other side of the street. A good way to do this is to periodically glance sideways (at stores, cars, people, etc) and use peripheral vision to look behind you. In order to better hide the fact that you’re doing this, try to make it visually obvious that you’re interested in what’s next to you rather than in what’s behind you (make it look like you’re interested in what’s in a store window, check out a car you walk by, etc). Try not to exaggerate these movements, or look sideways too much. Keep it nice and natural. All you need are short glances from time to time.
- Use crosswalks, traffic lights or other common reasons for short stops to naturally look around, and therefore get an even better peripheral view of what’s behind you.
- Find legitimate looking reasons to cross to the other side of the street you’re walking on. The 90 degree turn you’ll be making puts the area that was behind you at a 90 degree angle to you, which you can more easily and subtly cover with peripheral vision when you cross the street, and/or wait to cross.
- Use short stops (to look at store windows, to wait for a walk signal, to check your phone, etc) to try to notice if anyone behind you has also abruptly transitioned from mobile to static (thereby correlating to your movements).
- Use longer stops (walking into a store, cafe, etc) to quickly look out the front window or door to see if anyone outside transitions from mobile to static, if anyone is observing the location you just walked into as they walk past in the direction you were going, or if anyone walks in after you. Then repeat the two steps mentioned in the static surveillance detection section above.
- Use little fakes to see if you can expose – and then detect – surveillance indicators. Keep it simple and subtle. Try doing things like the following:
- Walk past a store with a window front, then stop, turn around and go back into the store.
- gather up your things when you sit at a cafe, get up (as if you’re ready to leave), but then go and order something at the counter, or go to restroom before returning to your table, or to a different table.
There are, of course, many other such actions you can perform, and the point of all of them is to do something that would be hard for an observer to anticipate, and therefore more likely to cause less skilled surveillers to make a classic mistake. These mistakes usually take the form of nervous shuffling, doubletakes, uncomfortable shifts from static to mobile and back to static, etc, which create opportunities for you to spot the correlations.
A surveiller will always correlate to their target, the question is how well they’ll be able to hide it, and actions like these can help flush correlations out into the open.
Many people like Hollywood type ideas of using reflective surfaces, peepholes or gadgets to either surveill others of spot if you’re being surveilled yourself. I’m not a fan of this. I’m not saying that it’s impossible to spot someone behind you by looking at a reflective surface, but you probably won’t do well if you over-depend on such tactics. Also, staring into a window (or rather at what it’s reflecting) or using a blank screen of a laptop or cellphone to reflect what’s behind you is more noticeable than you might think. The same problem occurs when you go for cliche moves like purposely dropping something in order to look around when picking it up, or stopping to tie shoelaces (that are already tied).
Surveillance Detection Route (SDR)
An SDR is a predetermined route you can plan in advance which is designed to subtly expose hostile surveillance. It basically incorporates all the above mentioned tactics into one planned sequence by carefully selecting a route that should lure a surveiller into following you.
A typical route needs to start at a logical location where you are expected to be found (your workplace is a good one). The route should not be one that you ordinarily take because if your surveiller already knows where you’re going, they won’t need to follow you (they could just wait for you there). Conversely, don’t make this route too strange because the surveiller might not be tempted to follow you, or worse, might suspect that it’s a trap. Make sure the route has both short and long stops (at predetermined locations where you already know what to look for, and where to look from), and you will increase your probability of covertly detecting surveillance if it’s present.
In my next article, I’ll introduce tactics to shake off, or otherwise protect yourself from hostile surveillance.
Though some of the wording in this article might seem instructional, please keep in mind that no article or book can be said to actually teach people how to conduct surveillance or surveillance detection.