So you want to spy on people like a real secret agent? That’s good. Being a spy calls for lots of sneaking around. (Of course, this is also true of avoiding chores at home, so I get plenty of practice.)
When you’re sneaking around after someone and trying not to be seen, we call this surveillance. Surveillance, of course, comes from the French word surveiller, which means hiding behind a fake schnozzola.
Or something like that.
When you get right down to it, there are two basic kinds of surveillance (leaving out electronic eavesdropping, which is a whole ‘nother can of worms). You can spy on folks without moving (stationary surveillance or stakeout), or you can do it on the move (shadowing or tailing). Let’s cover shadowing first.
Me and my shadow
The main rule of shadowing is: Don’t get caught. Ideally, you should be like a shadow — always there but never noticed. The key is to blend in with your surroundings, trying to look like everyone else who belongs there.
At a school, dress like a student or teacher. At a mall, dress like a surly teen. At a circus, dress like a bozo. In short, blend in.
• Not so close, bub: When you’re right on your subject’s heels, not only will he notice you, but you’ll bump into him if he stops short. Better to leave at least a half block between you and the target.
• Don’t stare: If you gaze at your subject like she’s the last brownie on the plate, she’ll definitely get suspicious. Glance, then look away. It helps if you have a cellphone or something else to pretend to be checking out instead.
• Use cover: Be prepared to window-shop, or step behind a tree, bus stop shelter, or other cover. You never know when a target will turn around, and you might need to hide in a hurry.
• Disguise is wise: If you’re going to be following a target for an extended period, be sure to bring something to change your appearance from time to time so they don’t get suspicious. A cap, a pair of glasses, a reversible jacket — all these can help fool your subject.
• Bring the bucks: Have bills and change ready, in case your target boards a bus or subway and you need to follow. (Or in case you get hungry and need to hit a vending machine for some M&Ms — crucial for keeping your strength up.)
Of course, tailing a subject is always easier with two people. You can sandwich the target between you — one a half block ahead, one a half block behind — or trade off being the point person.
Break out the stakeout
Sometimes spying on someone involves a bit of sitting around on your duff. Maybe you’re waiting for a contact to show up at a dead drop, or waiting to see who visits the subject’s apartment. That type of surveillance we call a stakeout.
On a stakeout, your biggest problems are the two Bs: boredom and bathroom breaks. You don’t want to miss anything vital, either by inattention or by answering the call of nature. Advance planning can help you handle these (and other) challenges.
• Pick your spot: This is the first key to a good stakeout. Much like a truant officer, you want to see but not be seen. If you can, scout the area before starting the stakeout, searching for a spot that offers cover but lets you watch what’s happening. Good spots: rooftop, restaurant table, parked car. Bad spots: middle of sidewalk, bicycle, dumpster.
• Bring the necessaries: Consider that you may be in place for a long time. You might want to take along snacks, a disguise, binoculars, secret camera, water, and some means of recycling water (empty cup for bathroom breaks).
• Don’t get seen: If there’s a chance your subject might notice your surveillance, be sure to use something to hide behind. Sunglasses and books are handy for this, as is the classic “blind”: a newspaper or magazine with a hole cut in it for viewing. (Note: this last technique doesn’t work so well with iPads.)
And that’s as much about surveillance as my spymaster will allow me to reveal. Happy snooping!
This is Agent X, signing off…