In a meeting with a former counter-intelligence practitioner I first learned of ‘dry cleaning’ as tradecraft jargon in the realm of countersurveillance. Willam E. Dyson’s book Terrorism – An Investigator’s Handbook, 4th Edition (2015; first edition published in 2011) defines it as follows:
dry cleaning A process by which a subject takes actions that enable him to “lose” anyone who is attempting to follow him. A person may “dry clean” himself by entering a crowded movie theater and leaving soon after through a rear door. Undercover officers and informants should also undertake “dry cleaning” maneuvers before meeting each other.
The Terms & Definitions of Interest for DoD Counterintelligence Professionals (.pdf, 2011) from the U.S. Office of Counterintelligence (DXC), part of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), contains a definition taken from an old manual of the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (AFOSI):
Dry Cleaning. [Tradecraft jargon] Any technique used to elude surveillance. A usual precaution used by intelligence personnel when actively engaged in an operation. (AFOSI Manual 71-142, 9 Jun 2000)
Following the meeting I did a bit of self-study and came across a reposted text apparently once shared at the now-defunct forum at XtremeRoot.net. I’m reposting it here because 1) it is IMO a useful read that covers (a subset of) aspects that also came up in said meeting, and 2) LOCKSS. I could not readily identify whom to contact to ask for permission to re-post it here. If you’re the author, feel free to contact me (see sidebar).
Further reading on this topic (friendly reminder: always apply critical thinking):
- Practical guide: Surveillance And Counter-Surveillance – For Human Rights Defenders And Their Organisation (.pdf, 2015) by Protection International.
- Practical guide: Cleaning Runs – Advanced Security Tradecraft (.pdf, 2004) by SpyTrainer.Com.
- Journal article: The Art of Agent Handling ($, 2019) by Joseph W. Wippl, published in International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence, Volume 32, Issue 4, pp. 781-789.
- Book: “Countering Hostile Surveillance: Detect, Evade, and Neutralize Physical Surveillance Threats” (2008) by ACM IV Security Services.
Traditional humint tradecraft presumably remains a key aspect of modern intelligence, notwithstanding the tech-heavy era we now live in. And be reminded that technology can fail — for instance by accident, by sabotage or (indirectly) by adversarial interception/surveillance.
NOTE: everything below this line is NOT authored by me, except for one [NOTE: (…)] block that I added.
I recently underwent some counter surveillance training, and it was one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done. As such, I thought I’d write up a short tutorial based on what I was taught and what I went through. This is all related to personal counter surveillance – i.e. preventing people following you.
There are 3 major parts to counter surveillance:
2) Identification – Spotting people who may be following you and verifying their intent.
3) Evasion – Making it difficult to follow you by performing certain maneuvers and following certain rules.
These principles, when put together, form something called a cleaning run. Its objective is to get you to a destination whilst identifying and losing any tail you might have.
The basic rules of a cleaning run are as follows:
- Give yourself roughly double to triple the amount of time usually needed to get to the destination. A cleaning run can last up to 3 hours!
- Plan your journey before heading out.
- Move across a large geographic area.
- Act naturally.
- Try to spend at least 50% of your journey in areas that are not covered by CCTV.
- Vary your transport method. Travel by bus, tram, train and taxi as well as on foot.
- Be aware of your surroundings and the people nearby.
- Be prepared! You need a pen, paper, envelope, stamps and enough cash for transport and visits to cafes / coffee shops. If you smoke, take some cigarettes and a lighter too.
The first step is to plan your journey. Start in an arbitrary direction, heading nowhere near your destination. You need to visit a variety of locations including quiet suburbs and busy city centres. Try to make the path you take relatively realistic (e.g. don’t walk round a block twice) and make it look like you have a reason to go to certain places along the way. You need at least two locations that will be almost entirely deserted – large open areas like parks are excellent for spotting someone following you. Make sure that your route crosses a few bridges and goes down some small side streets. You need to be able to stop off frequently at shops and other attractions. Look up timetables for buses, trams and trains, and use these services in your journey. You’ll also want to find places with post boxes and phone boxes, as they can provide some useful distractions.
Before you can shake a tail, you need to identify it. The best way to do this is to spot people you have seen before. A professional team can consist of 10 or more people, of which 2 or 3 at a time will follow you. They do a hand over periodically and try to avoid re-using the same members so that you don’t notice the tail. The “tried and tested” positioning system is to have one person follow directly behind you and another follow on the other side of the road further behind. If a third person is used, they are usually kept further back. If they think you’ve identified an agent, they’ll pull them out and replace them if possible.
The following things about a person can help you identify them as a tail:
- If there are multiple agents, expect 90% of them to be 30 years old or less.
- A professional team member usually has a precise watch. You can spot these quite easily if you’re close by.
- They will change their course when you stop or change your course.
- They will avoid looking directly at you, or stare.
- Untrained people in a team might talk into their sleeve or talk to themselves.
- If there are only one or two agents and they are associated with the police (CID, SOCA, etc), they will usually be wearing a suit (this is true for the UK, at least).
- When waiting, they will usually loiter aimlessly or appear fascinated by a mundane sign or poster.
When walking down quiet roads it is easy to notice someone following you. However, it is difficult to turn round and get a good look at them without them noticing. One great method to this is to enter a shop and purchase something. As you enter, glance behind you to see if anyone is there. If there is, hold the door for them. When you leave, go back the way you came for a while, then turn off and go another direction. You can usually identify at least one surveillance member this way.
In places with some traffic, cross over at an intersection. If you’re on the left of the street turn right and vice versa. This gives you chance to stop and look around as if you were checking for traffic. If you cross at a pedestrian crossing, pretend to press the button but don’t. This gives you time to stop and look around longer, making anyone following you quite obvious.
Small bridges and alleys can make great choke points. Be aware that isolated areas might be problematic because they might confront you, so try to pick areas with at least a few people around. If you smoke, stop to light up as you walk down a choke point. Stand sideways so that you can see both directions. This means that anyone following you will have to walk straight past, so you can easily identify them. You could also stop to write an SMS message – it’s feasible that you can’t walk and text at the same time. If you do this, start writing it and stop after the 4th or 5th letter. Most people will at least try to write and walk before failing!
In larger shops, stand and browse the magazines. You can use the short periods between picking up each magazine to glance in a direction to look for anyone you remember from before, or anyone looking at you. Untrained people will often behave unusually and can easily give themselves away in certain situations. They may stare intently at you, or completely avoid making eye contact. In the case of the ones who are quite obviously attempting to watch you without directly looking, orchestrate your path so that you walk past them, then stop and ask the time. This usually shocks and disorientates them, and they’ll usually get flustered and stutter their reply.
Use your pen and paper to jot down short descriptions of people that might be following you and anyone that you see twice. You can buy a newspaper and use the crossword to jot things down too. If you see someone twice in two far apart areas, you’re probably being followed. The same applies if you see the same person three times as you’re performing your run.
A clever trick is to scan for Bluetooth devices nearby when sat around. If you see the same name twice, you have a tail. [NOTE: one probably should not carry any electronic device to a secret meeting to begin with, except burners — which still requires tradecraft. Radio emissions — and not only Bluetooth or Wi-Fi — should be assumed to be unique fingerprints.]
Once you’ve spotted the people you want to escape, you need to start doing things to divert their attention from you to thin out the crowd. The text-book stuff like dodging down an alley or switching back on yourself is way too obvious and a professional will be able to handle it easily.
Organise your journey so that you arrive at a train station, get your tickets, then have to wait 10 minutes in the coffee shop before boarding a train. If possible, use the automated ticket machine and jump in just before someone else gets in the queue behind you. This helps stop agents from shoulder-surfing to find out where you’re going, or listening in on your conversation with the ticket office person. Wait until the last minute before moving to the platform, or sit on the wrong platform until your train is announced and then move to the correct one. Sit as close to a door as possible so you can see the entire carriage.
When travelling by bus, pay for a ticket to the furthest destination it goes to, then get off before that stop. This helps divert resources and prevent any surveillance teams from setting up in a target location. If you can sit at the back do so, as you can see where everybody is. On double-decker buses you might want to sit up top to make it more obvious if you’re being followed.
Towards the final quarter of your run, make it look like you’re doing something sinister. Go to a phonebox and call the number of a small computer shop. Ask something like “how much is your cheapest SATA hard drive?” and write down the price and a random postal code that’s near the computer shop. Write a single letter on the bottom of the paper to make it more confusing, then place it on top of the phone unit and leave the box. This will look like you’re trying to perform a dead-drop, so an agent would investigate. This reduces the number of people following you. You can then go into another phone box, fumble around underneath it to make it look like you’re grabbing something that’s taped to the bottom, get out an envelope and pretend to put this non-existent thing inside it, attach a stamp, write an address on there (somewhere around five miles away) and go post it in a postbox. An agent will need to get someone to open the phone box, so this will delay them further.
Strike up a conversation with someone in the street to make it look like that’s who you went to go see. This is best done in a quiet area, so you can watch the people nearby.
You can perform a covert U-turn by walking past a shop and showing some interest in it (stare at it as you walk) and then stopping 20 feet down the road as you very obviously check your watch. Stare at your watch for a second, then turn back and go to that shop. This makes it look like you couldn’t decide if you had time to go to the shop. Some poorly trained agents might just stop still and stare at you gormlessly if you do this.
In extreme circumstances, you can go for certain overt techniques that give away the fact that you know you’re being followed:
- Do a U-turn whilst walking and check out everyone who looks at you.
- Do the whole “tying my shoelace” thing. It can mean agents have to be dropped because they have to pass you, but it’s very obvious and you can’t actually identify them easily.
- Ask someone you think is tailing you for a lighter. Strike up conversation about the weather or contemplate them on their hair, shirt or watch if they have to spend more than 5 seconds fumbling around for it.
- Dodge down an alleyway quickly or move in a circuitous through a store with multiple exits. These allow you to shake a tail, but make it obvious that you are immediately wary of someone following you.
- Sit in a coffee shop and wait until you see someone that you know is following you. As you get up to leave, they will look over. Stare directly at them and wave before leaving.
- Use a payphone to call for three taxis. Book one from your current location (or nearby) to position A, and book the other two from near position A to position B. Take only one of the second taxis, then have them drop you off slightly outside location B. If they’re resourceful enough to be able to pull phone records, they’ll spend resources trying to find out who you called and where you asked to go to. Once they discover you have called 3 taxis, they’ll know something is odd.