Close-up of a vintage tape recorder with red recording buttons.

You may not realise it, but you probably conduct counter-surveillance measures every week, if not every day. If you lock your computer screen when leaving it on, you're making sure - whether intentionally or not - that people can't look at what you're working on. You're conducting counter-surveillance when you check over your shoulder to see if you're being followed or watched. Whether you're using a drone to monitor the movement of suspected foreign spies or simply disappearing into a crowd to make sure you aren't being followed, you're conducting counter surveillance.

In theory, counter-surveillance aims to protect your privacy, commercial interests and safety by preventing people from monitoring or recording your activities. How you do this depends entirely on the type of activity you wish to protect and the means by which you suspect you may be under surveillance. Counter-surveillance measures can range from the most basic to highly sophisticated and expensive. In this blog, we're going to look at basic, non-technical counter-surveillance. In a future blog, we'll be looking at counter-surveillance equipment and how it can help you improve your privacy and safety.

Basic Counter Surveillance precautions

  • Don't make it easy - Keep yourself to yourself. Tell friends and family the minimum they need to know. If you're going on a business trip and want to keep it private, make sure you don't leave suitcases around before and after. Don't leave foreign currency in your wallet, and don't leave souvenirs lying around. It almost goes without saying that you should be very wary of using social media. If you insist on using it, ensure you've got location settings switched off on all platforms.

Even sending a Facebook message can reveal your precise location if you're not careful. Just last year, a New Zealand jihadist rumbled himself via Twitter, giving away not only the region he was in but 45 actual houses that he used inside Syria. Don't be that stupid.

  • Varying your routine - If you suspect you are being watched or followed, one of the best things you can do is vary your routine. In early 2015, the Metropolitan Police Force issued a warning to its officers not to be predictable” amid growing concerns about terrorist attacks. Officers were advised to vary where they parked their car, the route they took home, and where they went.

Further variations to your routine, should you suspect you are being followed, may include varying the time of day that you leave and arrive at home, changing your vehicle more often than you would normally, avoiding socialising with the same people and altering your appearance.  You'd be amazed what a beard can do to alter your appearance.

  • Concealing your behaviour - If you need to conduct certain activities, such as performing sensitive work for a commercial client, you may not need to protect yourself. Still, it's a good idea to keep what you're doing on the down low. Simple counter-surveillance steps like preparing a cover story, avoiding inviting questions (don't walk around with a folder marked Top Secret, for example!) and concealing what you're doing with plausible alternatives.

For example, if you're providing domestic security for a client who doesn't want others to know they've hired security, you could carry DIY equipment or plumbing equipment with you to avoid arousing suspicion. Another top tip is to conceal any specialised equipment in everyday packaging. Microphones, cameras and expensive tools can fit quite easily into a battered old guitar case.

  • Know what people are looking for - A huge part of keeping your privacy intact is in knowing what people would be looking for in the first place. If people want to know about your financial conduct, using cash where possible will make it harder for you to be traced. If you think someone has been engaged to track your movement, make it hard for them to identify you. Think, how would you describe yourself to a police officer? Your distinguishing features are the first things to dumb down. If you're bald, wear a hat. This won't make you unidentifiable, but it will make it harder to distinguish you as matching the criteria.

Cover your tattoos, wear loose clothing if you've got a bulging gym body and don't mess about with body piercings (visible ones, anyway). If you think your work may be drawing the wrong kind of attention, then limiting the number of emails and phone calls you make might be smart. Discreet personal meetings in non-linked locations are the way forward.

  • Being non-descript - Did you know that one in five of us would automatically fail the MI5 application process? Tattoos - something that one in five of us have - are one of the key things that make you stand out, according to our intelligence services. So is being distinctively tall, short or muscular. If you don't want to be watched or monitored, making yourself look as ordinary as possible is a good idea.

  • Being discreet - Your everyday behaviour can draw unwanted attention toward you, whether completely innocent or not. How you drive your car, the way you handle yourself in public, even how you treat people down the pub can draw attention (hint; if you've suddenly landed some well-paid work and want to keep it low-key, maybe don't buy everyone in the bar a drink).

Counter surveillance can be refreshingly basic. The majority of the steps you take to avoid being watched or monitored are based on common sense. However, if someone has a financial (or romantic) incentive to know what you're up to, it'll take more than a baseball hat to keep them from finding out. Our next blog will examine technical counter-surveillance techniques, equipment and the associated legalities.