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Dec 23, 2005 | 23:58 GMT

4 mins read

Physical Surveillance: The Art of Blending In

Editor's Note: This is the fourth in a series of analyses on surveillance and countersurveillance. Role playing is an important aspect of undercover surveillance work — and those who attempt it without sufficient training often make mistakes that can alert their subject to the fact that they are being watched, or raise the suspicions of law enforcement or countersurveillance teams. Among the most common mistakes made by amateurs when conducting physical surveillance is the failure to get into proper character for the job or, when in character, to appear in places or carry out activities that are incongruent with the "costume." The terms used to describe these role-playing aspects of surveillance are "cover for status" and "cover for action." Good cover for status is an operative playing the role of a student studying in a coffee shop; bad cover for status is an operative dressed in business clothes walking in the woods. Good cover for action is an operative dressed as a telephone repairman pretending to work on phone lines — not playing chess in the park. The purpose of using good cover for action and cover for status is to make the operative's presence look routine and normal. When done right, the operative fits in with the mental snapshot subconsciously taken by the subject as he goes about his business. Inexperienced surveillance operative, or those without adequate resources, can be easily detected and their cover blown. An acronym used by government agencies when training operatives in effective surveillance is TEDD: Time, Environment, Distance and Demeanor. Failure to take into account these four elements is another amateurish mistake that can get the operative caught. The factors of time, environment and distance are important because a subject who notices the same person hovering around again and again at different times and locations is more likely to become aware that he is being watched. Demeanor refers to lack of cover or simply bad body language — which also can alert a subject to the presence of a surveillance team. A surveillance operative also must be extensively trained to avoid the so-called "burn syndrome," the erroneous belief that the subject has spotted him. Feeling burned will cause the operative to do unnatural things, such as suddenly ducking back into a doorway or turning around abruptly when he unexpectedly comes face to face with his target. People inexperienced in the art of surveillance find it difficult to control this natural reaction. These are just a few of the enormous number of mistakes that amateurs can make while conducting physical surveillance. They also can tip off the subject as to their presence by simply lurking around an area with no reason to be there, by entering or leaving a building immediately after the subject, or simply by running in street clothes. Surveillance operatives following the subject in a vehicle also can make many mistakes, including:
  • Parking in the same spot for an extended period of time while sitting in the front seat.
  • Starting and stopping as the target moves.
  • Driving too slowly or too fast and making erratic moves or abrupt stops.
  • Signaling a turn but not making it.
  • Following a target through a red light.
  • Using two-way radios, binoculars or cameras from a vehicle.
  • Flashing headlights between vehicles.
  • Maintaining the same distance from the target even at varying speeds.
  • Pausing in traffic circles until the target vehicle has taken an exit.
  • vehicles that close on the target in heavy traffic but fall back in light traffic
  • Jumping from the vehicle when the subject stops his vehicle and gets out.
  • Parking a vehicle but remaining in the car.
  • Tipping off the subject as to a shift change by having one vehicle pull up and park while the other pulls away — especially in an area the subject knows well, such as near the home or office.
In general, because of the resources and extensive training required to avoid making these mistakes, only governments have the time and resources to make surveillance operations highly effective. Even then, some very basic mistakes can be made that can alert the subject to the presence of a surveillance operation.

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