During the tumultuous 2016 election cycle, many Americans became more aware of the role – and prevalence – of surveillance conducted by international entities seeking to gain unauthorized access to information. As technology becomes more sophisticated, the frequency and magnitude of such threats only increases. To mitigate these threats, the appropriate counter surveillance measures are critical.
What Is Counter Surveillance?
Counter surveillance is the practice of identifying surveillance activities directed at a particular person or place. And it isn’t just political figures who are targeted. Due to factors like wealth, power and influence, other individuals are often targeted, without their knowledge.
Think executives. Affluent individuals or their children, advisors or family offices. High-level sponsors of political and social causes. Diplomats with sensitive systems or files. Technical analysts with unique system privileges. Doormen, secretaries, executive drivers, old friends and extra-marital interests – any of them can be the subject of a surveillance campaign. Think anyone with “inner-circle” access to the personal and professional habits, behaviors and lifestyles of principal targets such as those mentioned above.
Addressing Surveillance, Head-On
In my previous role with the U.S. Secret Service, counter surveillance teams were tasked with (1) detecting if someone was conducting surveillance on the White House to identify vulnerabilities or place sensitive surveillance equipment, and then (2) mitigating the effectiveness of the information gathered.
After 9/11, I was selected to help develop, organize and establish an expert group of Special Agents to conduct counter surveillance activities for the President and his family, as well as high-level government officials. Selection as a founding member of this counter surveillance program had a major influence on the trajectory of my career. I spent years conducting or managing counter surveillance activities around the White House and other secured environments, as well as for POTUS and his family.
Case in Point #1: The Hidden Microphone
When travelling overseas with the Secret Service, I was often made aware of suspected surveillance tactics and operations, as well as methods to avoid it. It was not uncommon for me or my colleagues, or the teams I oversaw, to be surveilled. In many cases, I was able to observe, first-hand, different kinds of surveillance techniques used by international entities.
One of my favorite surveillance stories took place during an international trip and involved a hotel room where we detected a hidden microphone. This room had been chosen for a meeting to discuss security apparatuses, assets, schedules, concerns about negotiations with the host government and strategy plans for dealing with those issues.
Once the device was located, my colleagues and I quietly spread the plan. We continued to use the room as scheduled every day of the trip, but our conversations were entirely made up. We discussed fictional issues and had fake arguments about strategies and schedules. Everything we said about our hosts was complimentary. We made statements like, “I wish we had expertise like that,” or, “I love this city and all it has to offer. I hope they invite us back.”
The information was useless to anyone listening, and whoever was on the other end must have concluded we were amateurs at our jobs. Most importantly, our mission went off without a hitch, because we had a seamless plan and our pre-trip planning paid off in spades.
Case in Point #2: A Popular Hotel’s Electronic Surveillance Command Post
On another trip, an intelligence official from the host nation personally showed me what appeared to be a major command post for electronic surveillance operations involving a popular hotel. The room was full of state-of-the-art cameras and electronic gear behind a steel door that looked like a maintenance closet.
Speaking in his native language, the official giving me the tour instructed one of the technicians to pull up a picture of me. Using what appeared to be facial recognition software, the technician ran a search that took less than one minute and returned an accurate picture of me engaged in conversation with another person that actually occurred the day before.
He then instructed a different technician to show me camera footage of the front-desk clerks who were actively taking phone messages. The technician zoomed in and was able to capture and print the entire contents of their messages. The clerks did not appear to have any idea their messages were being compromised in that way. Even more concerning, customers’ credit cards, passports or other documents shown to the front desk clerk could be captured in the same manner.
Are You Considered a Surveillance Target by International Entities?
What does this mean for you? I truly believe most surveillance will not be felt, detected or seen. Therefore, it is incumbent on you to assume you are being monitored and to have pre-established plans to make the surveillance more difficult. In worst-case scenarios, develop – or have your security personnel develop – a plan to appropriately deal with surveillance if suspected. I will provide more details on how to do this in a later blog.
Remember: security for the principal or the network is only as strong as protection around the weakest link. If you see yourself or your clients in this list, then take precautions. The first step is to acknowledge that, at some level, you or your clients may have some level of risk. The next step – if you consider that risk to be high – is to understand exactly how counter surveillance can help you. Then decide whether you should engage it to protect your interests or those of clients.
If you see value in integrating counter surveillance in your security details or programs, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.