The following article is dedicated to mobile surveillance.
The intention behind it is to explain how mobile surveillance generally works in order to later explain (in my next article) how mobile surveillance detection works. For this reason, the article isn’t meant to teach anyone how to conduct surveillance for the sake of conducting surveillance (articles can’t teach you how to conduct surveillance anyway), it’s meant to be the first article in a two-part series about detection of mobile surveillance.
At various parts in this article I will be discussing surveillance (rather than SD) in the first person. Once again, the intention here isn’t to focus on surveillance for its own sake, but rather to put oneself in the shoes of the adversary; thereby gaining a deeper understanding of what it is we’re trying to detect.
The article discusses mobile surveillance as it’s conducted on foot, rather than in vehicles. The reasons for this are: a) the general principles of the two are pretty similar (with non-vehicular surveillance being simpler to explain), and b) I’m much more familiar with, and experienced in, surveillance and SD on foot, rather than in vehicles, and don’t feel comfortable writing about what I’m much less experienced in.
There are two general types of mobile surveillance:
- Mobile surveillance on a static target: moving around in the vicinity of a static target, usually because there are no good static vantage points from which to conduct surveillance.
- Mobile surveillance on a mobile target: following a mobile target to see where it goes and what it does.
The first thing to mention about mobile surveillance is that it should only be used in situations where static surveillance is not as viable as mobile surveillance. This is most clearly apparent when the target is static, since ordinarily, being static (preferably sitting down) gives you a less noticeable appearance combined with the ability to see and notice more yourself. It’s only when there aren’t any good static vantage points – when the environment is unconducive to static surveillance – that seemingly buzzing around in the area can draw less rather than more attention to a surveiller.
When it comes to mobile targets, here too, if you can remain static and collect information on your mobile target as it passes you, this is what you want to do. But if you don’t yet know where the target is going and what its route is, you’re going to have to conduct mobile surveillance on the mobile target first.
This article will concentrate on mobile targets, and the mobile surveillance that’s involved in following them.
The general idea in mobile surveillance on a mobile target is to follow the target in order to see where it goes and what it does. Following, when conducted by a single surveillance operative, usually means that the surveillant wants to be somewhere behind the target. This gives the surveillant two advantages: 1) being able to see where the target is going, and 2) being out of the target’s field of vision. Taking this type of surveillance one level higher, the surveillant will also want to hide the fact that he/she is surveilling the target from anyone else in the area. A useful idea to keep in mind as a surveillance operative is that someone is always watching you. This means that it’s not enough to simply stay out of the target’s field of vision as you duck behind garbage cans or quickly scurry between bus stops, trees and dark corners. If your actions seem strange or suspicious to anyone around you – to anyone who might be watching you – then you probably shouldn’t do them.
One possible way for a lone surveillant to covertly follow a target is to do so from the other side of the street. The surveillant will still want to be behind the target for the above mentioned reasons, but being behind and to the side (let alone on the other side of the street) raises both the surveillant’s covertness level and their ability to see where the target is going. Many people might not realize this, but there are disadvantages to walking directly behind a target. If the target quickly walks into a store, unless you’re looking directly at the target at that precise moment (rather than, say, watching where you’re going or avoiding a collision with another person on the street), the target can suddenly disappear from your field of vision. If, on the other hand, surveillance is conducted from the other side of the street, the surveillant has a much wider field of vision which can extend into the stores, etc, on the target’s side of the street. The obvious disadvantage of being on the other side of the street however is that the added distance, traffic and time that separates the surveillant from his/her target might be disadvantageous in very busy areas. As always, the environment will end up dictating what the best positions might be.
Distance and Speed
The distance at which you want to follow the target depends on the target’s movements (fast, slow, erratic, consistent, etc), on the environment (quiet, bustling), on the people around the target (mostly static, largely mobile) and on the mission (detecting a general route, spotting a particular action, etc). One convenient thing about the environment/distance ratio is that environments where the target needs to be followed more closely (busy areas, for example) also provide more cover for the surveillant – thereby making the close proximity necessity a bit easier to maintain. Conversely, quiet areas mean that the target should be followed from farther distances, but here too it’s not such a tall order to maintain such long distances, since quiet areas also make it easier to keep track of the target from farther away.
Another aspect of the environment to take into account is that if the target has just started walking down a city block (or any other straightforward path), you can afford to be farther away from it, since you can anticipate that the target isn’t going to make any unexpected turns. But as the target nears the next intersection (or any other potential turn), you will want to get a bit closer to it so that you don’t miss a turn if one is made. Once you yourself have reached the turn, you can go ahead and slow down again – giving the target more distance until it nears the next intersection, where you get closer to it again.
In most cases, the parameters for deciding your distance from the target shouldn’t be how close you can get to it while still maintaining your cover, but how far you can afford to be from it while making sure not to lose it. The inclination, in other words, should be to maintain as much distance as you can afford. An important reason for maintaining the longest distance you can is that this can help you when the target makes short stops (standing at a red light, stopping to check their phone, etc). The distance buys the surveillant more time – time during which the surveillant can remain mobile after the target has stopped. And if the distance and speed of the surveillant can allow it, he/she can remain mobile for the duration of the target’s short stop. The point is to avoid a situation where the surveillant directly correlates to the target by stopping and going when the target stops and goes. A useful analogy is the distance you should keep from the vehicle in front of you when driving. If the distance is large enough, you can maintain a constant speed despite the fact that the car in front of you might keep stopping and going unexpectedly. The discrepancy between the consistent movement of the surveillant and the erratic stop-go-stop movement of the target can help mask the surveillant’s correlation to the target.
Longer stops can be tricky because the surveillant doesn’t usually know they’re coming. If they knew, they wouldn’t have to conduct mobile surveillance in the first place, they would just wait for the target at the future stop location. The difficulty also come from the fact that the surveillant has to unexpectedly transition from mobile to static surveillance, oftentimes for an unknown length of time, before possibly having to transition back to mobile when the target gets moving again. Because the timing, location and duration of these stops are unknown to the surveillant, acting naturally, maintaining cover and not directly correlating to the target becomes very difficult. Remember, cover usually means the surveillant must visually justify their presence by doing something that fits the environment and that’s completely unrelated to surveilling the target. This could sometimes be simple (if, for example, there’s a conveniently located coffee shop the surveillant can use as a vantage point) or very difficult (if, for example, the target walks into a store that’s surrounded by luxury apartment buildings).
One way a skilled single surveillant can blur their mobile-to-static correlation to the target is to stretch as much time and distance as possible from the target’s transition before the surveillant makes his/her transition. If the target walks into a restaurant, for example (thereby transitioning from mobile to static), the surveillant will want to remain mobile for a little while, and only transition from mobile to static after finding some seemingly unrelated location at which to stop and look at the restaurant. Keep in mind that there are no formulas for this, that every environment is different and that there are many ways to get this wrong. Walking back and forth in the area before transitioning to static, for example, is one way to call more rather than less attention to yourself. You want to stretch the time and distance of your transition from that of the target, but don’t overstretch it. And if there’s no suitable location at which to remain static, you might just need to stay mobile the entire time (as was mentioned at the beginning of the article). This works the same way when the transition is from static to mobile. If, for example, the target exits a building and starts walking down the street, the surveillant would be wise to let the target get a good half a block away before he/she also makes the same inevitable transition from static to mobile.
As for where the surveillant should stop after the target has stopped, there’s obviously no formula for this either, but the surveillant can make better decisions if they either know the area in advance, or constantly look ahead while they’re moving in search of potential stop justifications. If the surveillant can look a block or half a block forward, they can seemingly flow right into a store or cafe that was spotted up ahead if the need suddenly arises. What you want to avoid is the unexpected ‘Oh shit’ moment of shuffling double-takes, or nervous stop-go-stop, when the target makes an unexpected stop. The correct way to handle such a situation is to act like nothing happened (thereby blurring your correlation to the target), keep on walking, and find a store, cafe, a reason to check your phone, or any other justification to stop that’s seemingly unrelated to the target’s stop. Keep in mind that this justification should ideally match the length of time you predict the target will remain static. If the target walks into a convenience store, you probably don’t have to be static for all that long. But if the target walks into a nice restaurant, the stop might be quite a bit longer, requiring a justification for a longer static presence in the area.
Observing The Target’s Body Language
As mentioned above, much of the difficulty in surveillance comes from the fact that you don’t know what the target’s next move will be. One useful way to mitigate some of this difficulty is to notice the target’s body language. People will often project their intentions before they execute their actions. If you’re observant enough, you can pick up on some of these, thereby anticipating the target’s actions before they happen. People usually look and move towards the direction they intend to go. If, for example, a target looks and moves a bit to the left as they near an intersection, they will probably end up turning left, or stopping somewhere on the left side. If a static target sitting at a coffee shop finishes his/her drink, collects their things, and puts their cell phone in their pocket, they are probably getting ready to leave; thereby transitioning from static to mobile. In mobile surveillance, any advanced knowledge about the target’s movements is extremely useful (even if it’s just a few seconds in advance).
The first thing to be said about teamwork is that it’s the ideal way to conduct mobile surveillance. Teamwork can allow surveillance to be conducted at a higher level while minimizing the above mentioned risks and difficulties.
One useful technique that a team can employ is leapfrogging the surveillance behind or around the target. This is achieved when a surveillant who’s following a target is replaced by a new surveillant who comes from behind. When executed correctly, the first surveillant peels off the pursuit as the new one takes his/her place. The leapfrog move can be repeated a number of times, and will effectively blur the correlations in movement between any single individual and the target. Leapfrogging can also blur any correlative transitions from mobile to static, and vice versa. If the target transitions from mobile to static, the mobile surveillant who followed the target to that point can just keep walking, report the location of the transition, and have a fresh team member (one who didn’t just follow the target) show up and conduct static surveillance on the target. As the target transitions back to mobile again, the static surveillant reports this, and another team member (one who wasn’t static in the area) can go mobile after the target.
A more complex way for a team to conduct mobile surveillance is by maintaining a ‘floating box’ around the target. This virtual box is achieved by having team members surround the target on all sides. Team members can, for example, be behind the target (on both sides of the street), in front of the target, and possibly on parallel streets to the right and left of the target. The members of this team must be in very good communication with each other (covertly, of course), as this ‘box’ continuously moves with the target. If the target makes a right turn off the street he/she was walking on, the roles of the team members in the box can shift around in order to avoid the appearance of the target being followed. The surveillant from the opposite side of the street can, for example, switch places with the surveillant directly behind the target; the surveillant who was on the parallel street on the right can now assume the front position, (since the target just moved towards that street), and the previous front position surveillant can take a right turn on the next block – thereby assuming a flank position that parallels the target on the street to the left. In cases where no turns are made, the surveillance team leader (who will usually be somewhere behind the target) might decide to preempt some team position changes; thereby leapfrogging his/her team members around the target.
The reason why I didn’t want to dedicate this entire article to surveillance teamwork is that despite its obvious advantages, surveillance teamwork is very difficult to train, maintain, operate and afford, which is why it’s also way less likely to be implemented by hostile entities. Government and law enforcement agencies do indeed have the knowhow, budgets and capabilities to employ such teams, but I’m not trying to teach government and law enforcement agencies how to do their jobs. I’m trying to inform private sector security professionals on how hostile entities conduct surveillance – in order for us to detect such activities. And since hostile entities are not very likely to employ well trained and coordinated teams to conduct surveillance on private sector targets, there’s not much use in spending too much time discussing this interesting yet far-fetched possibility.
In my next article, I discuss how mobile surveillance can be detected.
As always – no article, book, or seminar can be said to actually teach people how to conduct surveillance. Though some of the wording in this article might seem instructional, please keep in mind that this article is not intended to teach anyone how to execute surveillance operations.
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