In this article, I’m going to discuss various ways in which people can protect themselves from hostile surveillance.
The first thing to understand here is that hostile surveillance isn’t in and of itself the top threat you should be worried about. Surveillance is no more than an information collection tool, it’s what the information is used for that should be of most concern. Evading surveillance, or otherwise protecting yourself from it, is therefore a way to protect yourself from a hostile tool, not the hostile goal, and this is an important fact to keep in mind as we go along. Try not to make more out of hostile surveillance than it is, and try not to make more out of surveillance evasion than it is.
Before we get started, let me make it clear that no article can be said to actually teach someone how to evade surveillance. Secondly, I’m not trying to discuss how private individuals can evade government level surveillance (and wouldn’t be able to do so even if I wanted to – which I don’t). Lastly, this article is mostly dedicated to what normal, non professional individuals can do, rather than, say, what clandestine operatives (who wouldn’t need to hear any of this from me anyway) should do in order to protect themselves from hostile intelligence agencies.
I should also mention that there isn’t really any objective authority on this subject, and that there are many different ways of doing it. My own knowledge comes from years of private sector operations, where I both trained on this and used it in real-life situations. Most of these real-life situations were cases where surveillers would try to follow me after I finished leading a protective detail – mostly in San Francisco. This kind of thing isn’t always as ominous as it may sound (at least not to me). Various groups and activists that oppose political and corporate clients of ours sometimes just want to figure out who their security operators are. It is, nevertheless, something I don’t much care for, and therefore something I’ve had to evade from time to time. The good news is that surveillance is a pretty tricky business, which means that unless you’re dealing with a very skilled and dedicated operative, or a team of operatives, it doesn’t usually take much to shake off your surveiller (I would often even get a bit disappointed at how easy it was to shake most of them off).
OK, now that we got all that out of the way, let’s look at a few strategies you can employ in order to protect yourself from hostile surveillance. We’re going to start with some of the more basic, common sense approaches (which are actually very effective), and then make our way towards the sexier stuff (which I know you want to get to).
It’s not necessarily possible 100% of the time, but one of the simplest ways to protect yourself from hostile surveillance is just to avoid it. This might sound strange, but you already know how to do much of this. Every time you avoid some dangerous part of town, or decide not to walk down some dark alley at night, you’re essentially avoiding the types of simple surveillance that precede most crimes. If you stick to safe areas, and reduce your visual footprint, you’ll reduce your risk of being targeted and followed in the first place.
Additionally, it’s always best to keep a generally low profile when you go out and about. Luxury cars, expensive clothing and flashy toys can make you stand out; as can acting out of place (like a tourist, a celebrity, a partygoer, etc.). You might be surprised to find out how many billionaire executives or otherwise influential individuals regularly walk around, carrying on a normal, largely unprotected lifestyle by simply keeping a low profile. I can’t say I’d necessarily recommend this (and have actually recommended otherwise to a good number of them), but I also can’t deny the fact that they’re usually not even noticed, let alone targeted by hostile surveillers.
Here are a few simple measures (there are many more) that can help prevent being surveilled. You can go as hard or as soft as you’re comfortable with these – to each his own:
- Try to vary your routines and routes of travel as much as you’re comfortable with. Keep in mind that there will still be routines you won’t be able vary (dropping off and picking up your kids from school, showing up to work on a regular basis, etc.), but there are little variables that can probably still be played with.
- Try to exit through a different door from the one you entered. This will be easier in larger places like malls, hotels, train stations, etc. But you can also do this in many schools, offices, apartment buildings and even in many houses.
- Try to avoid spending large amounts of time in static locations that can be easily surveilled from safe distances (street-side cafes and restaurants, parks, city squares, etc.).
- When you meet up with someone, try to do so indoors (inside a cafe, a store, a hotel lobby, etc.), rather than meeting on the street. Try not to wait for people outside places you’re going to be spending time in.
Most people might not realize this (since they haven’t experienced how it feels to conduct surveillance), but spending hours and hours in one location, might very well discourage a less committed surveiller from sticking around. Don’t underestimate how tedious surveillance can be. Unless you’re dealing with a real professional, or just an extremely dedicated opponent, you can often simply bore them off of you. It’s the opposite of flashy, but it can be quite effective.
I often find that when the subject of hostile surveillance comes up, many people automatically take a ‘Cloak and Dagger’ approach – trying to covertly detect and counter. This might be important in some scenarios, but I can also think of many cases where a conventional, overt approach can be even more useful.
You can make it visually clear to everyone around you that you’re aware of your environment, and are therefore not an easy target. If you feel like someone’s surveilling you, you can just start looking back at them. You can even follow this up by filming them on your cellphone. Depending on the situation (if it’s safe to do so), you might even want to confront them, ask them who they are and what they want. Inform them that you’re going to call the police (call the police if necessary), or otherwise show them that they’ve been completely burned. You don’t have to let them follow you home, to an important location or to an area that might be less safe for you. Just because we tend to get caught up in the sexy intrigue of covert operations, doesn’t mean we should never consider conventional, common sense measures like these.
Lest you think this approach only applies to low level situations, I know a former member of the Israeli Security Agency (often referred to as Shin Bet), who once took this approach when he was in charge of security at an Israeli embassy back in the early 90s (I won’t specify which country this was in). Three agents from an enemy state (I won’t say which) used to regularly occupy a table at a restaurant that had a clear view of the embassy. They had long been detected, and at a certain point, when the Israelis grew tired of this, my friend took a large camera, walked into the restaurant, stood in front of their table, said hi and snapped close-up photos of each of the men. He then bid them goodbye, and walked back to the embassy. The three were not seen back there again.
OK, so now we get to the sexier part you’ve been waiting for.
Before we get rolling, for those who want to learn how to detect surveillance first, please read my previous article. But keep in mind that you don’t necessarily need to do this for surveillance evasion. I know this might sound strange – because how can you get rid of something you haven’t detected first? Well, the answer is that with or without detecting it, you’ll probably be getting rid of it in the same way anyway, so there’s no harm in just breaking out some evasive maneuvers. These might only take a few extra seconds or minutes anyway (a small price to pay even if it just turns out to be a precautionary action). You’d obviously want to detect if you’re being surveilled, but without a good amount of training and experience (and oftentimes even with it), this can be a difficult and time consuming task; so why wait if you’re just going to be taking the same evasive actions anyway?
The key to understanding evasive maneuvers is to first get acquainted with how surveillance works, understand its difficulties and exploit its vulnerabilities. The opportunities you’re looking to exploit are the brief periods when your surveiller will not be looking directly at you. These inevitable moments will almost always occur when you’re mobile, since the surveiller will also have to look where they’re going, maintain a bit of distance, let their target go around a corner first before following it, etc. The vulnerability you’ll be exploiting here is the surveiller’s difficulty to keep track of their target (especially in crowded areas), which leads to their natural tendency to latch onto certain visual cues (appearance, height, direction of travel, etc.). This tendency to latch onto visible variables is what opens up the surveiller to deception by means of quickly changing those variables, and therefore breaking out of what they’re expecting to see.
Here’s what worked for me:
- Establish a slow, stable pace of movement that will be easy to surveill from a comfortable distance.
- Find a spot somewhere ahead of you that can allow you to break out of your surveiller’s visual field – even if just for a few seconds. This could be as simple as turning a corner, walking into a department store, train station, hotel, etc. (advance knowledge of the area can take this to a higher level).
- Use the brief interval – just after you’ve exited your surveillers field of vision – to quickly change as many of your visual variables as you can (appearance, body language, pace and direction of movement, etc.), so by the time your surveiller reaches a point where they expect to reacquire you (based on the appearance, body language, pace and direction you’ve caused them to expect) none of those variables apply to you anymore.
Let me give you a fun example from my own experience. This one didn’t involve actual hostile surveillers (it was on an SD course) but it was more of a challenge, since I had five very dedicated surveillers on me, most of whom had years of special forces, law enforcement and security experience.
I was walking up Market Street, in the middle of downtown San Francisco, wearing a blue buttoned up shirt and a dark backpack. I made sure to keep a slow pace and to position myself in the middle of the wide sidewalk in order to make it easier to follow me from a distance. The idea was to be very noticeable and predictable, and to lull my surveillers into a comfortable, or even somewhat complacent, distance and pace. When I eventually got to a BART station (the subway system in the San Francisco Bay Area), I quickly went down the stairs and turned the corner. At that point, I could be fairly certain that no surveiller had eyes on me – at least for a few seconds until someone could get down there. While walking very fast in the station, I quickly took off my blue shirt (which I started unbuttoning as I was going down the stairs), shoved it into my backpack, and put on a black baseball cap which I had in there. I then quickly popped out of an exit on the opposite side of Market Street, and took off on a side street. As my surveillers were struggling to reacquire the man wearing a blue buttoned-up shirt and a dark backpack who was walking at a slow pace westward on Market street, they didn’t notice the guy with the white T-shirt and black baseball cap (holding his backpack with one hand down at his side) who popped out on the opposite side, and quickly disappeared onto Montgomery street. Nearly every single variable my surveillers were looking for had quickly changed without them noticing. In the mix of a busy subway station and crowded intersection, full of people and other distractions, their target had simply vanished. I know how shocked they were when it happened because they told me as much afterwards. All of them were doing their best to follow me, and at least one of them was barely ten seconds behind me on the street.
The interesting (and cool) thing about this type of surveillance evasion is that it’s not all that different from what professional illusionists do – lulling their audience into false expectations, redirecting their attention, and making a simple sleight of hand trick look like a disappearing act. It’s good to practice the technical aspects of this, but don’t forget that beyond the physical movements, like most good illusions, surveillance evasion is more of a psychological trick you play on your audience – the hostile surveillers that are left scratching their heads after their target somehow disappeared.