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Posted by (CS)d June 5th, 2009


Surveillance-Counter Surveillance

This article will give you some background on surveillance and countersurveillance, but no amount of theory can substitute for the real thing. So if you’re serious about learning how to follow someone undetected and how to detect someone who’s trying to follow you, you need to get out there and practice. Practice means picking a subject and following that person around without his or her seeing you. But be careful: to anyone who notices what you’re up to, your behavior will be indistinguishable from that of criminals, and you can easily get yourself into trouble with this exercise.

The difficulty of surveillance will generally be a function of four things: the environment, the surveillance consciousness of the subject, the resources you can deploy, and your objectives. These variables function together, but for now, let’s examine them one at a time.

Cameras Surveillance

Where is the surveillance going to take place? In an empty park at midday, or at a crowded shopping mall on a weekend? Obviously, the former offers you few opportunities to obscure your presence, while the latter offers many: as a rule, the more people are around for foot surveillance, and the more cars for vehicular, the easier it is to stay concealed.

How surveillance conscious is the subject? On one end of the spectrum is someone who is truly clueless: no instinct, no training, no notion that someone might be following him as he ambles along, jabbering into a cell phone or plugged into an MP3 player. You can follow this person almost anywhere without being detected. On the other end of the spectrum is the person with instincts, training, and experience, who expects that she’s being followed and is determined to identify and/or lose her pursuers.

What are your resources? Solo surveillance is hard. A small team is better. A large team is better still. At the height of the Cold War, the Soviets were able to deploy hundreds of agents to watch suspected CIA officers move around Moscow. With that many resources, the Soviets could put in place what’s called “static surveillance” – the equivalent of a zone defense in basketball. As the subject moves, surveillance doesn’t move with him; instead, he just passes from zone to zone. Because static surveillance doesn’t move, it does nothing to reveal itself, and is therefore very hard to detect.

What are your objectives? If you’re a terrorist looking to kidnap or assassinate a foreigner, the purpose of your surveillance is probably only to determine when and where the target is vulnerable. This kind of surveillance is relatively easy, because it can be conducted from a distance no closer than what’s necessary to determine what time the target leaves his house every morning, what car he uses, what route he uses, and whether he’s security-conscious. But if you’re a Chinese domestic operative tailing a suspected CIA officer around Beijing, and you’re trying to catch the officer in the act of a dead drop or other form of clandestine communication, your surveillance needs to be close and constant – a much more difficult operation.

You can see how these variables work together. If your target is surveillance-conscious, you can compensate by having a large, professional team. If the environment is crowded and fluid, you probably can conduct the surveillance alone. And so on.

In any event, when you’re conducting surveillance, you have to avoid marked behavior. Marked means anything that’s not the norm. With regard to personal appearance, excessively long or short hair would be marked. Likewise facial hair. Or visible tattoos. Eyeglasses are ordinary and common enough to be generally safe for surveillance, but an overly stylish pair would be marked.

Some examples of marked clothing are hats, bow ties, and suspenders. Marked cars include anything bright, expensive, stylish, or new. Marked behavior includes an odd gait, like a limp.

The point is, anything that draws attention to itself, anything that is more memorable than necessary, is marked and should be avoided. Pause for a moment and think. What kind of cars do you tend to notice and remember? What kind of clothes? Those are the ones you need to avoid if you’re intent on remaining undetected.

Spy Surveillance

Of course, what’s marked in one setting might not be marked in another. Know your environment and learn to blend into it. The better you know your environment, the better you can adjust your clothing, behavior, and “vibe” so you won’t stand out. And you can use marked behavior as a distraction: start with a baseball cap, for example, and the subject might very well notice it to the exclusion of your other features. Later, when you’ve discarded the cap, you will have effectively disguised yourself.

The same factors by which we measured the difficulty of surveillance (environment, surveillance consciousness of the subject, resources you can deploy, your objectives) apply to countersurveillance, too. The difference lies in the distinct factors countersurveillance controls: while surveillance usually controls the resources it can deploy and its objectives, countersurveillance selects the environment and awareness within that environment. In other words, when conducting countersurveillance, you should manipulate the environment to force surveillance out into the open, and know what to look for so you can spot it.

The goal of countersurveillance is to make surveillance do things that no one else in that environment is doing (again, this is why static surveillance is so hard to beat; you can’t get it to react). But how?

Start by choosing the environment. Unobtrusive countersurveillance is hard if you don’t know the terrain. Spies who want to avoid behavior that could confirm the opposition’s suspicions therefore go to great lengths to plan what are known as surveillance detection routes (SDRs), which are ostensibly normal courses but which in fact make things difficult for a surveillance team.

A good SDR usually combines low cover for a surveillance team with a variety of ingress/egress options for the subject. In a vehicle, this could mean a “shortcut” through neighborhood streets with little covering traffic but with many different outlets. A route like this forces a surveillance team to follow you closely because the team can’t predict which road you’re going to take out of the neighborhood, while the lack of traffic in the neighborhood makes it easier for you to spot the team. On foot, a stroll into a relatively empty park with multiple entrances and exits and perhaps its own subway station has the same effect. Surveillance has to move in close or risk losing the subject at one of the many points of egress, while the lack of pedestrian traffic deprives surveillance of opportunities to conceal its presence.

Objectives matter, too. Do you only want to confirm the presence or absence of surveillance? Do you care whether the people watching you know you’re surveillance-conscious? Do you want to lose surveillance if it’s there? You can think of these three operations as forming a continuum.

Scenario One: Confirm that you’re being followed without the follower recognizing what you’ve done. This is difficult because your countersurveillance moves must all be disguised as ordinary behavior. Stopping suddenly and looking behind you might be effective countersurveillance, but it’s also obvious. Looking behind you for traffic as you turn to cross a street is more subtle, and more difficult.

Scenario Two: If your unobtrusive efforts have failed to flush out surveillance, use provocative techniques – methods that surveillance will have a hard time beating but that will reveal to surveillance, if it’s there, that you are surveillance-conscious. Dramatically changing pace tends to force surveillance to follow suit and reveal itself. Get on several elevators. Get off a train and wait on the platform until it’s clear. Use your imagination: If you were following someone, what would make your job difficult? Do that.

Scenario Three: Decide whether to abort your mission or to evade the surveillance. Aborting requires no further discussion; generally speaking, you just wait until next time. Evasion calls for deception and suddenness.

If you’re trying to spot surveillance, you need to know what kind of interest the opposition has in you. Are you an intelligence agent trying to operate “in the gap” – that is, in the momentary blind spot of enemy surveillance? Are you a foreigner who might be targeted for a kidnapping? An ordinary citizen who’s being sized up for a street crime? Know your enemy and you will learn to recognize him by his behavior.

To put it another way: The secret to good surveillance and countersurveillance, like the secret to effective sales and romance and indeed to life itself, is the ability to put yourself in the other party’s shoes. As you get better at surveillance, you’ll learn what makes surveillance effective and what can make it weak. This understanding will make you better at countersurveillance, too. And as you get better at countersurveillance… you get the picture.

You might be thinking, “This is all a lot of cloak-and-dagger stuff. I’m just a regular person. What does any of this have to do with me?”

Well, you probably won’t find yourself up against something like the old KGB, it’s true. But you might find yourself traveling abroad, perhaps in a place where kidnapping or killing a foreigner like you is worth something. Those operations require surveillance. So do many ordinary street crimes. And the best thing about developing your surveillance consciousness isn’t even that it helps you spot surveillance. The best thing is that someone who’s following and assessing you will see that you’re surveillance-conscious, and decide to kill or kidnap or rob someone easier. Not pretty, but that’s the way it is.

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