In the world of covert operations, there’s an almost endless array of techniques that can help you improve your game. Here are a few useful tips I can give, based on my years of teaching, working, and managing covert operations.
Be sure your cover meets the “boring test.”
To maintain a good cover—i.e., the visual projection of what you want people to see and believe about you—you’ve got to be boring. If there’s nothing interesting about you, it’s more likely no one will pay you any attention, much less remember you later on.
A common mistake I’ve seen many people make when trying to establish a cover is to invest too much energy in looking harmless, while forgetting that a cover that’s interesting, fun, or attractive is almost always a bad one, since it fails the boring test.
As for your cover story, here too, keep it simple and boring. Don’t volunteer too many details, and keep it bland so that the person you’re talking to will forget you as soon as he/she walks away.
Not “looking the part” is a huge advantage.
There’s no point in ignoring this fact: The archetypal covert operator is male, in his mid-20s to early-60s, with a somewhat “serious look” about him. Lest you think this discriminates against those who don’t fall into this demographic, let me assure you that the opposite is true: Simply being outside of that category confers a natural advantage—e.g. being female, older, or very young looking. The reasons for this (as politically incorrect as they might sound) should be pretty obvious: People in these categories don’t fit expectations for who a covert operator should be.
I can tell you from experience that some of the hardest covert operators to detect are people who, for the casual observer, look like anything but ex-cops: if your “look” resembles the quintessential “little old lady,” jovial old grandpa, or skinny, bicycle-riding hipster, you are almost unburnable.
The idea of “not fitting the type” is exactly the point.
Skip the “covert tactical” wear.
Any good covert operator knows that personality and background can bleed into appearance and bearing. People who gravitate towards investigations often have backgrounds in military, law enforcement, security, or all of the above—and they may unknowingly reveal their histories in subtle ways that harm their covers.
When considering how to dress for a covert operation, you might be tempted to wear whatever you’re used to wearing in casual situations. The problem is that your preferred “casual” style probably reveals something about your personal taste, which may also offer clues about your background … and about what you might be doing.
The most common manifestation of this is the classic off-duty or low-profile officer/agent look—a casual and comfortable style common to industry professionals (even on their down time). Some of you already know what I’m talking about: jeans, khakis or cargoes; loose-fitting, untucked golf or buttoned-up shirts (good for concealing a weapon); and comfortable walking or sporty shoes. This is a very common, and therefore predictable, look for people who want to be casual, but also want to feel comfortable enough to jump into action if things “go south.”
A few more easy giveaways I’ve seen over the years are: tactical or sporty sunglasses (usually Oakleys), tactical shoes and backpacks (most notably 5.11s), G-Shock type watches, tactical-looking ruggedized cell phone cases, clip-on pocket knives, golf/Polo shirts worn over undershirts (usually Under Armour), baseball caps, soft-shell jackets, and anything that’s considered “casual tactical” or “covert tactical.”
If you think it looks good on you ... you should probably go change.
I’ll be honest: The typical low-profile officer look is one that I myself like. But the fact that someone with my background and personality likes this look is all the more reason to avoid it when trying to hide what kind of person I am.
A good way to decide what not to wear on surveillance is to consider whether you think something looks good on you. Odds are, if you think it looks good on you, it’s probably because it fits—and represents—your personality, which means you should probably go change.
This same principle also applies to your behavior. Conducting yourself in a way that looks dull or even somewhat dimwitted, as you slump down in your seat and play with your cell phone, might feel like the opposite of what you’re used to when it comes to important tactical operations. But, once again, that’s precisely what makes it so good for masking who you are and what you’re doing.
Use your smart phone as part of your cover.
Not only is your smart phone the best and most natural way to communicate; it can also justify your presence just about anywhere. Next time you’re out and about, notice what bored/boring people are doing. Most will have smartphones in their hands. This is a fantastic way for you to meet the boringness standard.
Your phone can even help you when conducting mobile surveillance on foot. Unexpected stops are almost unavoidable in these situations, and using your phone as a reason for stopping (e.g., pretending to answer a text message, etc.) can be helpful.
If you plan to actually use the phone (or some PTT device that looks like a cellphone) for operational communication, try to avoid using call-signs and other tactical communication lingo when out in the field. People with military, law enforcement and security backgrounds love to say things like, “Command from mobile-1. Target traveling southbound on Lincoln Street.” Needless to say, this is not how most people talk on their phones.
Instead of establishing official call-signs, try using names (they obviously don’t have to be your real names), and make up a name for your target too, something like “Tom.” So instead of the example above, why not say something like, “Hey Brian, it’s Adam. What’s up, man? I think Tom’s actually heading down Lincoln.” As for the length of these calls, keep in mind that most people don’t simply call to say one sentence, so you might want to keep talking. You don’t have to fill up your communications network with chatter to do this—hang up (or release the PTT button) and blab on for a few more seconds to make it seem like a normal phone call.
Be wary of low profile/covert communications gear.
First, when it comes to hands-free cell phone extensions (both wired and wireless), I’m not a huge fan. These are designed to free up your hands for other purposes, which is what makes them so useful for covert operations—and that is exactly why I have a problem with them. Because covert operators usually need to use a low-profile communication method, that’s precisely what an experienced observer will look for. The hands-free cell phone earphones with a mic (usually dangling down from just one ear) is something I see too often on covert operators—making them quite easy to detect.
As for other types of covert communication, I feel compelled to explain that there’s nothing all that covert about the classic radio “surveillance kits” that dangle a “pigtail” from your ear and force you to talk into your sleeve or collar. More advanced wireless skin-colored mini earpieces and microphones might do a better job of concealing themselves, but if you’re interested in two-way communication, you’ll still have to awkwardly (and suspiciously) talk into what looks like thin air. You could, of course, mask this by pretending to talk into a regular cell phone, but in that case, why not just talk into one for real?
The biggest irony in using advanced technology for covert operations is that if these expensive and rare tools ever get discovered, there’s a much bigger chance you’ll get exposed than if you just text or call with an ordinary (or ordinary-looking) cell phone.
Making mistakes is par for the course.
So you found yourself at a lousy vantage point, or enacting various classic mistakes you were taught to avoid during training. Welcome to the real world of covert operations! Now, should you be happy about making these mistakes? Of course not. But should you abort the entire mission after realizing you’ve just made a mistake? No, not usually. There might be cases where a small mistake can indeed jeopardize the mission or expose an operator, but in most private-sector operations this will not be the case. You’ll just need to move on, avoid looking anxious about the mistake, and try to avoid making it in the future.
The one thing you have going for you is that most people are so unaware of surveillance, they will rarely detect an operative, even if he makes a mistake. Humans have a limited attention span and focus spectrum; surveillance and surveillance detection don’t come naturally to most of us, which is why training is so important.
I’ve conducted dozens of exercises over the years, and from my experience, I can say that it’s extremely difficult, even for skilled surveillance detection trainees, to actually detect a covert surveillance role-player, even when they know there’s one out there. When you transfer this to the real world, where there aren’t any dedicated trainees looking for you, you’ll find that most people are consumed by anything except you—their cell phones, other thoughts and distractions—and they are miles away from ever noticing your mistake, let alone concluding that you’re a covert operator.
I’m not suggesting you abandon your abundance of caution, or that you take it for granted that you’ll never get exposed. I’m simply saying that in the inevitable cases when you break a rule of covert methodology, 99.999% of the population will be completely oblivious to it. Always try to avoid mistakes, but don’t panic when they inevitably happen.
About the author:
Ami Toben is the owner of Protection Circle (https://protectioncircle.org), and the director of consulting, training and special operations for HighCom Security Services. He specializes in terrorist activity prevention, surveillance detection, and covert protective operations.
Born and raised in Israel, Ami has over 15 years of military (IDF) and private sector security experience. Currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area, Ami has been providing high-end protective services to Fortune 500 corporations, foreign governments, foundations, nonprofit organizations and wealthy individuals.
In addition to his Protection Circle blog, Ami has also had articles published in Security magazine, Security Solutions Magazine, Security Driver Magazine and SRM-Ti.