Detecting hostile surveillance is a specialist skill that takes years to become an expert in. While we don’t pretend to be able to teach surveillance detection through a single blog post, we are convinced that international travelers and expats can come a long way with a few simple tips. So go ahead and try them out. They won’t interfere with your activities or comfort level, and you’ll sharpen your situational awareness as you train your perspective – some pretty handy travel skills in their own right.
The first thing to know is that the vast majority of attacks – whether by pickpockets, muggers or even more sinister types – are preceded by surveillance of one kind or another. The bad guys need to know if the target will meet their objectives (e.g., are you suitable for robbery?) and they need to ascertain their chances of success (e.g., can they both get your money and get away?). To do this, they collect information via surveillance. This surveillance process might take seconds or minutes; it might take a year or more for better-protected (i.e., more difficult) targets. But the bad guys inevitably tend to look before they leap. What they’re doing is illegal, and they want to be sure of improving their chances of success.
Some of the questions they are looking to answer include the following:
- Do you have any security with you?
- Are you aware of your surroundings, or are you too preoccupied with other things?
- Do you appear to be confident?
- Are you predictable, and do you travel the same routes at the same time?
The second thing to know is that you are at greater risk when carrying out routine or scheduled activities than you are when your activities seem unplanned or unpredicatable. The paradox is that you need to be especially vigilant when doing what is most mundane: you need to pay special attention when you are leaving or arriving predictable locations such as your home or office. Everything else being equal, your threat level is lower when you are somewhere you visit only rarely.
Eyeball to eyeball
There are lots of ways that criminals gather information and conduct surveillance. They can use publically available publications and the Internet. They can recruit someone who knows your movements (bellboys, taxi drivers, colleagues, etc.) to inform them, wittingly or unwittingly, about what you do. In any case, they will always need to corroborate and verify whatever they glean from other sources through field surveillance: keeping an eye on you and your movements.
It is exactly this need for eyeball-on surveillance that forces the perpetrator to show his hand (to the alert eye) – thus enabling the rest of us to identify it for what it is – hostile surveillance – and act accordingly to ensure our safety.
Stay aware, stay secure
With all of this in mind, here are a few simple tools to help keep you and your family secure whether you’re on foot or in a car:
- When departing or arriving from home and work, always pay special attention to who is around. Are they paying particular attention to you? Have you seen them before (at the same or another place)? Do they react to you, even subtly, averting eye contact, making a phone call, changing position, any reaction at all? Do they seem restless?
- Remember, any routine activity puts you at higher risk because it makes you more predictable. So look for the same indicators during other routine activities during your day or week.
- Be aware of your surroundings. Instead of keeping your nose to the ground or your gaze on your phone, get into the habit of scanning around with your eyes to widen your perspective and increase your situational awareness. This isn’t about becoming paranoid and looking for trouble. This is about being aware of the world you live in.
- Trust your instincts. For me, this is the huge one. If something doesn’t “feel” right, even if you don’t know why, listen to that little voice, the tug in your stomach, your sixth sense. If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t right.
So what do you do if you think something or someone is acting suspicious – and as if they might be keeping an eye on you and your movements?
Act on it. Go ahead and indirectly let them know that they’ve been spotted planning a hostile act. Alert a security guard or even a bystander to put them in the spotlight. Call the police if needs be. They will usually be frightened off as you will appear to be a “difficult” target due to your high level of vigilance.
As a layman, you should know that you will generally be safer around people – and don’t try to be a hero or directly confront the perpetrator.
I’d like to end this blog with a little anecdote that I heard about first hand. A diplomat I know was stationed in a country plagued by radical hostile elements, whose preferred method of terror was placing explosive devices in the wheel wells of targeted diplomats’ vehicles. This lead to a preventive joint intelligence operation between the host country and the diplomat’s country. The result of this operation was that a terrorist “safe house” was raided, a number of terrorists were arrested, and a “hit-list” was recovered. The “hit-list” contained the names of several diplomats, some of whom had already been attacked, as well as this particular diplomat, who had never been attacked.
During questioning, the terrorists were asked why diplomats on the list, both above and below the diplomat I know, had been attacked – but not the diplomat who told me this story. Their response is something we can all take a lesson from.
Now, this particular country had a high rate of street crime. The diplomat drove a nice new SUV, and had had all of his hubcaps stolen. He replaced them with new, more expensive hubcaps but was concerned that they would be stolen as well. So every morning he would circle his vehicle and check to see if his new hubcaps were still in place.
THIS was the key to him being alive to tell me the story. The terrorists thought he was checking for explosive devices every morning, and thus considered him to be too security-aware to attack successfully. This is why they did not attempt to harm him.
Please note that this article is meant only to provide some general tips for spotting surveillance. If you feel threatened, then don’t hesitate to share your concern with local police as soon as you can.