Producer’s note: Someone on Quora asked: How easy is it to tail/follow someone in real life? Here is one of the best answers that’s been pulled from the thread.
Effective physical surveillance can be surprisingly difficult to pull off in real life, even for trained individuals with a relatively unsophisticated target. The human mind naturally detects repetition. Still, many people go throughout life in their own personal bubbles, checking their phones, listening to music, and exercising very little situational awareness. It really depends on the target.
Between 2002 and 2003 I was the subject of a number of surveillance attempts by the FBI in connection with my intrusions into computer networks at OPSEC and PERSEC practices.and other companies. This met with mixed results – while on one occasion the FBI was able to ascertain who I’d called from airport payphones despite rotating phones and using multiple calling cards, they were unable to determine where I lived. This led to over 200 interviews with known or suspected associates of mine, most of which were unsuccessful in obtaining meaningful information due to my
Physical surveillance can take place for any number of reasons. Not all of it is cloak-and-dagger stuff – a lot involves ordinary street criminals scoping out targets, private investigators keeping tabs on cheating spouses, and other mundane stuff. But in our increasingly complex world, state-sponsored surveillance no longer just involves diplomats and suspected spies. Economic espionage frequently targets individuals tied to corporations who are believed to have access to nonpublic information and trade secrets.
Basic counter-surveillance techniques can complicate life even for architects of very persistent physical surveillance. However, when performed by someone untrained, these can have the adverse result of tipping off the surveillance team to the fact that you’re aware of their presence, which can lead to unpredictable outcomes.
The video below includes some basic tips on suggested common responses to routine surveillance, especially for overseas travelers. Having lived in Bogotá, Colombia for a number of years, I can say that they’re useful for the average person at home or abroad. One thing I might add to it is that it’s helpful to trust your instincts if a person looks out-of-place. Arriving at the El Dorado Airport a while back, I was approached near a money exchange booth by a man claiming to work for a taxi company, offering to help me to a cab. I noticed that despite the dozens of cabs outside, he was the only such person near the money exchange booth, and the ID clipped to his chest wasn’t issued by the municipal taxi authority.
I excused myself and headed to the main taxi wait area. I spotted him a second time minutes later, and overheard him telling an associate that he had seen me exchanging money and didn’t think I spoke much Spanish (I actually do). I waited briefly for a lull in traffic, and crossed to the opposite side of the road to take a random taxi, thus avoiding the possibility of ending up in a car with one of his accomplices. He and his associate didn’t follow, but at that point it would have been very obvious if they did.
Comprehensive physical surveillance will often be performed by teams rather than just one or two people. At the FBI, at least for national security and organized crime cases, this is often done by the Special Surveillance Group. They will tend to look entirely normal – anyone from a homeless guy on the corner to a lady pushing a baby carriage to an elderly grandmother could be part of such a team, sometimes called “ghosts”.
Team surveillance will sometimes involve members leading ahead of you and taking possible routes you might turn down, so that they can maintain contact and hand you off to another team member if you change your route, without having someone behind you obviously following you at the time. They may possibly change their appearance, from clothes (sometimes able to be inverted to change their color) to sunglasses to wigs, or even have a switch which disables one of their car headlights in order to have you believe that you’re seeing a different vehicle.
A common counter-surveillance technique is taking a surveillance detection route, which involves a series of movements which no one on a linear path would reasonably take. This requires some advance awareness of your surroundings, especially to avoid putting yourself in a position where you might find yourself isolated and subject to harm if the people following you turn out to be criminals.
In short, tailing someone can be as easy or as difficult as they make it, but it’s rarely 100% predictable.