This article will cover some of the more common misconceptions I’ve encountered among non-practitioners of covert operations (mainly those who want to employ covert operators). For those interested in getting tips for field operators, please check out my previous articles, Tips & Suggestions for Covert Operators and Tips & Suggestions for SD Operators.
I could probably write a long and boring (and mostly useless) book about security and protective intelligence definitions, and the various dissenting opinions about those definitions. For this article, however, I’ll just touch on the very common misunderstandings regarding the terms: Overt, Low-Profile, and Covert, as they pertain to the private protection industry.
Overt refers to operators who anyone can see are on-duty as security personnel. The most common version of this is uniformed campus security officers (though operators in dark suits and ties also fall into this category). Everyone knows who they are and what they’re doing.
Low-profile operators are usually plain-clothed individuals (or ones dressed like the people around them) who try not to draw any attention or make it too obvious that they’re providing protection. Most untrained people will probably not notice who they are and what they’re doing but trained and/or experienced and/or observant individuals might. Strictly speaking, low-profile isn’t an attempt to hide security, just to make it less conspicuous and attention-grabbing.
Covert means that nobody is supposed to know that there’s an operator there. It’s not a question of hiding or camouflaging but of blending in and making it appear like the operator is not engaged in a protection or intelligence operation.
In the government sector, there are those who make the distinction between the terms covert and clandestine. A clandestine operation, according to the US Department of Defense, differs from a covert operation in that emphasis is placed on concealment of the operation rather than on concealment of the identity of the sponsor. In the private sector, this is mostly viewed as a distinction without much of a difference though.
One important distinction we do have in the private sector however is between cases where a covert operation is added to an overt one, and cases where only the covert contingency is there. I’ve participated in both.
There are operations where an individual, facility or event has an overt security force and a covert force that’s there to augmented it. This means it’s not a secret that there’s someone or something there to protect, and that operators are there to protect it, but the true extent of the protective effort is.
On the other hand, there are situations where no overt security team is there, and only a covert measures are in play. In these cases, the idea is not to draw attention to the fact that there’s anyone or anything there to protect in the first place, and to make it seem like no protective measures are being employed at all.
Some of the most common confusions and conflations I encounter are between the terms low-profile and covert. Namely, people who describe a low-profile situation as a covert one. But I also had a client (unsurprisingly from Hollywood) who said she wanted Secret Service-looking close protectors (black suit, ‘pigtail’ earpiece, etc.) to provide covert protection. I had to inform her that we’d be happy to provide her with covert protection, but that the Secret Service look was nothing if not overt. You can have one or the other, or one and the other, but they’re not the same thing.
Goals for Covert Operations
Whenever I get a request for a covert operation, I start by asking the client about their concerns and goals. Quite often, once the picture becomes clearer, it turns out that an overt or low-profile situation can serve their needs much better than a covert one.
Some clients ask for a covert operation simply because they think it gives them a higher level of protection. I’ve often had to explain that the covertness factor can be an important tool, but that it isn’t necessarily the right kind of tool for every job. This is most apparent when the job in question is preventive physical security.
One of the most important factors in preventive security is deterrence by appearance (appearance of security personnel), which can discourage a would-be attacker. But if the operators work covertly, there’s no visual deterrence and therefore much less effective prevention. This means that covert protection—on its own—is much more reactive than overt protection. To only jump into action after an attacker has taken some initiative is something that isn’t usually desirable. Covert protection (and covert surveillance detection) can be extremely effective in prevention when it augments an overt protective force. But on its own, it’s much more reactive.
It’s true that in most cases, the covert operator is more skilled than a conventional one, but the covertness factor isn’t always the best way to achieve your protective goals. It can, in fact, make things much trickier, not to mention more time consuming and expensive.
Remember: Covertness is a tool, not a goal. Many people fall in love with the idea of a covert operation without first considering if it’s the best tool for the job. The tool needs to serve the goal, not the other way around.
I’ve gotten requests like this numerous times over the years:
“We want you to provide covert protection and surveillance detection on our CEO throughout the week. We need coverage at the residence, at the workplace, his travel route to and from, and all evening outings if they happen (restaurants, movies, etc.). We need you to start immediately and we’d like you to do this on your own.”
Not that it isn’t flattering when someone thinks I can actually do all that on my own, much less with no preparation. Maybe it’s because people think real-life works like the movies, where James Bond or Jason Bourne can do everything on their own, simultaneously, flawlessly and at a moment’s notice. I wish it could go without saying that real-life doesn’t work like that, but I occasionally still have to remind people of this.
For starters, covert protection and surveillance detection are not the same thing. It’s not a question of finding someone talented enough to do both jobs simultaneously, the goals, operational parameters and distances from the protectee are usually different. And since the same person can’t be in two places, with two different goals and sets of parameters at the same time, you’re going to need different people for the different jobs. And no, I don’t just mean one person for each job. Once you understand what covert protection and surveillance detection actually mean, once you understand the logistics that are involved, you’ll realize you need a whole team to execute each job properly. And good operators don’t come cheap.
Compared to overt/conventional operations, one of the biggest trade-offs of proper covert operations is that they’re going to need more people (skilled ones, with higher pay-rates), more planning and longer hours. These types of operations require lots of resources in order to be properly executed.
As extensively as I’ve written about the harsh, often boring and grinding realities of real-life covert operations, there’s no denying that there’s also a certain coolness factor to them.
There. I got it out of the way.
But it’s important not to let the coolness factor blind you to the necessities of achieving your goals. Most security goals are achieved through “uncool” conventional measures and most intelligence is collected from “unexciting” open sources. It’s important not to mistake the coolness, ingenuity or sexiness of the method for the quality and usefulness of what it gives you.
So, When Should You Employ Covert Operations?
I know what you’re thinking: “You work in covert operations and you’ve just written an entire article discouraging people from employing covert operations. Thanks a lot…”
OK, so let’s end on a positive note. I’m not trying to discourage people from employing covert operations, I just want to educate people about when to employ them and when not to.
So, when should you employ them?
First, I’m lumping together covert protection with covert protective intelligence (SD), but here are two general factors to keep in mind.
There are some cases where overt protection can put you in a tactical disadvantage. If your protective measures are overt, a capable and committed adversary can observe and understand them, and do so covertly. This means they can look for security weaknesses and plan an attack that will exploit them. In order to mitigate this, it can be beneficial to employ covert protection, which the hostile planner cannot observe and therefore cannot plan for. It can also be beneficial to covertly detect the hostile observer (with Surveillance Detection) while they’re still in their pre-planning phase, and to therefore take back the tactical advantage.
This would have to be done covertly because if it were done overtly, the adversary would know about it and could therefore outmaneuver you as they maintain the tactical advantage.
There are relatively few clients that are faced with adversaries that are that hostile, committed and skilled, and therefore relatively few cases where such extensive measures are necessary. I do however still recommend to most of them that the covert measures augment conventional/overt ones.
The second reason (which doesn’t necessarily have to conflict with the first) is public relations and general atmosphere. Many individuals and organizations want to be protected but don’t want to feel it or have others notice it (and Tweet about it, post photos of it, etc.). I’ve written about this before and explained why this is one of the main reasons covert protection and covert protective intelligence have become so common these days, especially in Silicon Valley.
Get my book, Surveillance Zone now!
Go behind the scenes of corporate surveillance detection & covert special operations. Get a first-person account of actual covert operations I’ve participated in. Learn the secrets of the trade and discover a hidden world that’s all around you.