A Very Brief Introduction To Surveillance Detection

pic2By Ami Tobin.

There has been a great deal of discussion lately around the potential for homegrown terrorism potentially carried out by young men returning to Australia from the conflict in Syria feeling disillusioned, angry and radicalised by their experiences and exposure to people who would see harm done to Australian citizens and businesses. To that end, the Australian Government is working hard with Australian security agencies to detect and deter such individuals before they can carry out any sort of attack. However, as everyone knows, it only takes one person. Therefore, the question becomes, what can the security industry do to play a role in preventing terrorist attacks on Australian soil? One possible course of action is to better understand the process undertaken by individuals intent on carry out attacks with a view to thwarting attacks and better protecting shopping centres, sports stadiums, public transport terminals and so on.

Surveillance detection (SD) 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, following are some general clarifications about the intentions behind this article:

  • The field of SD is both wide and deep, and many of its fundamental principles admit some exceptions, and even 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 SD. Though some of the wording in this article might seem instructional, this is primarily for the sake of brevity; it 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 operative that will enable him or her to look for surveillance (SD location, appearance, demeanour and so on).

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 (such as intently observing, taking notes, photographing or videotaping). Though these factors might 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. Operatives can always hope for easily detectable surveillance indicators (and should always look for them), but they 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, signalling, communication, 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 an operative experiences how surveillance feels in the flesh, he 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 a relatively rare situation when ‘it takes one to know one’ – or at least to detect one.

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 and so on). 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 to appear completely natural. Good vantage points might be coffee shops, park benches, crowded areas, or 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 the focus is to hide and blend in. But if the operative is also trying to visually collect information on a target, 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. Signalling, gesturing, hiding, telephoning, texting, or even just checking the time in conjunction with a target’s movements or activities can all be a correlation. A particularly difficult correlation 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 does not 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, 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

With an understanding of what to look for, the question now becomes how and from where should operatives look for it? To answer this question, it is necessary 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 operative. Therefore, to establish whether or not a correlation exists, in most cases, it is necessary to be able to observe both sides of the correlation – simultaneously if possible. Exceptions to this rule do exist, where surveillance can be detected without also observing the target, but these usually require the SD operative to either have advanced knowledge of the target’s exact movements, timing, actions and so on 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 SD needs to be done covertly (without the surveillance operative noticing it), an SD vantage point should be one that gives the SD operative a single field of vision that includes both the potential surveillance vantage point and the target – that is, one that does not require turning one’s head back and forth (the above-mentioned exception applies here as well).

The ideal SD vantage point, therefore, will be somewhere behind the potential surveillance vantage point. In this way, not only will an SD operative be able to simultaneously see both sides of the correlation (target and surveillance operative), but it will be easier for the SD operative to remain hidden from the surveillance operative. For example, if an outward-facing bench at the edge of a nearby park is recognised (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.

It is 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.

Ami Toben is the director of consulting, training and special operations at HighCom Security Services, a security and investigation company based in the San Francisco Bay area in the US. He is an experienced security director, trainer, account manager and published writer with over 14 years of military and private sector security experience and a successful record of providing high-end services to Fortune 500 corporations, government and law enforcement agencies, foundations and wealthy individuals. His professional experience includes: full-spectrum facility security operations, special-event security, executive protection, low-profile and covert security projects, metal detector operations, estate security, shareholder meeting security, surveillance and surveillance detection projects.