A Very Brief Introduction To Surveillance Detection

Surveillance detection is the attempt to covertly determine if surveillance is being conducted, and if so, to collect general information on the surveillance entity – time, location, appearance, actions, and correlations to the target.
Before introducing some of the fundamentals of this subject, I would like to make some general clarifications about the intentions behind this article:

  • The field of surveillance detection is both wide and deep, and many of its fundamental principles admit of some exceptions, and even of exceptions to the exceptions. The purpose of this article is to provide a simple and brief introduction. It is therefore important to keep in mind that no such introduction can possibly contain the countless details and case-by-case contingencies and exceptions that exist.

  • No article, book, or seminar can be said to actually teach people how to perform surveillance detection. Though some of the wording in this article might seem instructional, please keep in mind that this is primarily for the sake of brevity. This brief introductory article is not intended to teach anyone how to execute surveillance detection operations.

A good way to begin explaining surveillance detection is to break it into its two components:
1. Understanding what to look for – what it is about other people that needs to be detected.
2. Understanding how and from where to look – what it is about the SD operator that will enable him/her to look for surveillance (SD location, appearance, demeanor, etc).

What to look for

Many people tend to think that in order to detect surveillance, one should try to spot anyone who seems suspicious, out of place, nervous, or taking a special interest in the asset in question (intently observing, taking notes, photographing, videotaping, etc). Though these factors might very well turn out to exist, it is important to note that rather obvious indicators of this sort will only be detected if the level at which the surveillance is being carried out is low. In other words, the very first thing that a well trained surveillance operative will learn is how to NOT display any of the above indicators. We can always hope for easily detectable surveillance indicators (and should always look for them), but we would be wise to also try to detect the less obvious indicators of surveillance as well.

The single most important indicator that a person might be conducting surveillance (on any level) is the person’s correlation to the target. If the term correlation seems a bit vague or general that is because it is. This is one of the reasons why surveillance can be quite difficult to detect – especially the higher levels of surveillance – when correlations are at their most subtle. In general, a correlation can be any act of observation, movement, signaling, communicating, or even just presence over time and distance in some kind of conjunction with the location, timing, and/or movements of the target. And though there are ways to blur and camouflage these types of correlations, except for very rare cases, there is no real way to completely eliminate them while still conducting effective physical surveillance.

The best way to understand what correlations to a target might look like, and why they almost always exist when surveillance is carried out, is to experience how it actually feels to conduct surveillance, and to therefore correlate to a target oneself. After you experience how surveillance feels in the flesh, you will be much better positioned to spot people who are going through the same experience. In much the same way, casinos and fraud detection units have been known to hire ex-cheats, frauds and con artists, who have become extremely adept at detecting the very same tricks they themselves used to employ. This is one of those relatively rare situations where you can actually say that ‘it takes one to know one’ – or at least to detect one.

As had been discussed in a previous article, hostile surveillance is a process that begins by understanding the area around a target, locating potential vantage points, and understanding what kinds of people spend time at the vantage points (what they do, what they look like, etc.). A vantage point is a location from which the operative can conduct surveillance on a target, and a good surveillance vantage point is one that gives the operative access to important visual information, while allowing him/her to appear completely natural. Good vantage points might be coffee shops, park benches, crowded areas, and any environment into which the surveillance operative can naturally blend while observing the target.

What makes surveillance so difficult, however, is that as seemingly normal as an operative might strive to appear, the fact will always remain that there is a constant tension – or even a contradiction – between how the surveillance operative appears and what the operative is actually doing. And it is within the scope of what the operative is actually doing – visually collecting information on the target – that most surveillance correlations are to be found. Hiding or blending in is easy if all you are trying to do is hide and blend in. But if you are also trying to visually collect information on a target, or spot a particular action or movement of a target, or observe changes and habits of a target, then as subtle as they may be, correlations to the target are almost inevitable.

The simple act of observing a target is a correlation. Moving in conjunction with or following a target is another type of correlation. Paying close attention to the target at specific key moments can be a type of correlation. Signaling, gesturing, hiding, telephoning, texting, or even just checking the time in conjunction with a target’s movements or activities can also be a correlation.

Another type of correlation to the target, a particularly difficult one to detect, is what is called correlation over time and/or distance. If, for example, the target is a CEO who is staying at a hotel for a week while on a business trip, a correlation can be something as subtle as an individual spending every morning at that hotel lobby, every day for the duration of that week. Even if the individual doesn’t appear to be observing, filming, or communicating as the CEO moves through the hotel lobby (there are a number of electronic tools that can make these actions very difficult to detect), the simple presence of the individual over time can be a correlation in itself. If the CEO happens to be on a multi city business trip, and the same individual in question is seen spending time in the lobby of each hotel the CEO is staying at (say, in New York, London and Tokyo), then, again, even without correlating in action, merely being present over time and distance in conjunction with the CEO can be a type of a correlation.

How and from where to look

Now that we generally understand what to look for, the question becomes how and from where should we look for it? To answer this question, you will need to understand two things:

1. A correlation, not unlike an equation, has two sides to it. In this case, the two sides are the target and the surveillance operator. Therefore, if you want to establish whether or not a correlation exists, in most cases, you will need to be able to observe both sides of the correlation – simultaneously if possible. Exceptions to this rule do exist, were surveillance can be detected without also observing the target, but these usually require the SD operator to either have advanced knowledge of the target’s exact movements, timing, actions, etc; and/or to be in covert communication with either the target itself, or (in most cases) the target’s security or close protection unit.

2. Since surveillance detection needs to be done covertly (without the surveillance operative noticing it), an SD vantage point should be one that gives the SD operator a single field of vision that includes both the potential surveillance vantage point and the target – i.e. one that doesn’t require turning one’s head back and forth (the above mentioned exception applies here as well).

The ideal SD vantage point therefore – one that combines both factors – will be somewhere behind the potential surveillance vantage point. In this way, not only will an SD operator be able to simultaneously see both sides of the correlation (target and surveillance operative), but being behind the surveillance vantage point will make it easier for the SD operator to remain hidden from the surveillance operative.

For example, if an outward facing bench at the edge of a nearby park is recognized (mapped out) as a good potential surveillance vantage point on a company headquarters, a potential SD vantage point might be a bench further back in the park, overlooking both the surveillance vantage point bench and the company headquarters.

Another example of a surveillance vantage point might be a window seat inside a coffee shop across the street from the company headquarters, where a surveillance operative can observe the comings and goings of a CEO. A good potential SD vantage point can therefore be a seat in the back of the coffee shop, where an SD operator can observe correlations between the comings and goings of said CEO (which can also be covertly communicated to the SD operator, if possible/necessary) and the actions, or even mere presence over time, of the individuals looking out the coffee shop window.

It’s important to remember that convenient notions of ideal SD situations or ideal SD vantage points often tend to crash on the hard rocks of field reality. Ideal situations, in other words, are not always available, and one of the most important purposes of realistic field training is to learn how to deal with less-than-ideal conditions, and still get the job done.

The next articles will delve a bit deeper into the mechanics of surveillance detection. Please feel free to leave comments, questions and suggestions in the comments section below. These will either be replied to directly, or will be discussed in the following articles.

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14 thoughts on “A Very Brief Introduction To Surveillance Detection

  1. Nicely put together..
    On this subject I often visualize it this way; Become the wolf circling the sheep pens. When you find your way in if there is no wolf in front of you.. turn around.

  2. Excellent article! A congealment of learned and instinctive factors is paramount. A practitioner should be honest in their ability to assess and detect surveillance. A great amount of well explained and spot on guidance.

  3. Ami,

    Excellent introduction and use of examples!

    An easy acronym to understand what to look for…TEDD (time, environment, distance and demeanor), which I’m sure you’re familiar with. Some readers may find it beneficial to do some futher reading on these concepts.

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