Technology and
Covert Operations

by John Murray

Covert Operations has
long relied on a mix of the most current technology available, and the need for
an “old-school,” hands-on approach. No covert operative worth his salt would
rely entirely on technology, as opening up an operation to an easy hack is
almost the first danger one is warned against in training. I ran an organization
within the world of covert operations for almost four decades, and in my time,
from the early the 1970s until about 10 years ago, much changed, certainly. But
many of the tried and true methods are not only still in use today, but they
have become even more important to catching shadows and to remaining under the
radar of both the shadow world and the high-profile, legitimate, policing
forces, both of which are key for a covert operative to avoid.

Due to the need to leave
as little footprint, digital or literal, as possible at all times, in fact
covert operations are now looking more to the past than to the future. Hiding
in plain sight is still the most effective disguise in this business. Now that
everyone and their mother has a camera in hand, just walking down the street
has become a movie production, and constantly being on camera certainly makes
flying under the radar harder. But, today, as in past decades, it still works
pretty darn well to put on a fake beard and a hat. Facial recognition software
still has a hard time with this low-brow defense. Also, given that hardly
anyone is familiar any longer with old codes, writing in short-hand, or sending
a message in Morse Code, these old tricks of the trade have become more useful
recently. And, seduction is still the most common form of infiltration, into
organizations on either side of the coin. That said, of course, there are some
great advantages to the new technologies that have sprung up in the past couple
of decades. Advancements in DNA testing, for instance, would make identifying
both victims and perpetrators quicker, easier, and more certain, which is a
huge advantage over our past methods. All in all, however, I’m not so sure I’d
be as willing to sign on to that life anew given the difficulties facing my
kind of work with today’s technologies.

Most of the best
technologies currently in use in my field, advancements in communication,
transportation, and identification, were all existent in my day; they have only
become faster, smarter, and more sensitive with new development. For instance,
heat sensors have always been a great technology for the covert operative.
Today we may be able to bounce the sensor technology through a satellite to
determine how many live bodies are in a room halfway around the world, but
frankly, in the 1970s we could still do the same thing, we just had to hop on a
plane first. Drones are also an undeniable advantage of modern technology. To
be able to fly a camera into a restricted zone and see the feedback in real
time is something I sure would have liked to have been able to do on multiple
occasions over my career. That said, we did have “fly-on-the-wall” cameras and
recording equipment, we just had to gain access to the space we wanted to bug.
It was harder and riskier, for certain, and my job would have been much easier
with this technology, but we managed. However, we certainly never had an
alternative to drone delivery, and that is a technology I would have enjoyed.

Yet, for the most part,
many of the greatest advancements in computing, identification software, and
rapid communication either leave too obvious of a trace to be useful in the
world of covert operations, or they are simply improvements on what we were
already working with. People cannot use technology to entirely change their
faces, they cannot transport themselves or anything else, save by drone, in any
new manner, nor can they entirely avoid cameras. By and large, we had, in the
1970s and 1980s, much of the same technology to scramble computer signals, re-route
calls, or bypass passport controls and ground clearance. Of course, its
improved, but it isn’t fundamentally changed, and I would argue that it doesn’t
much need to be. Most people are not looking for us, and those who are, are not
any further along technologically, then we are. As long as a covert
organization remains on the cutting edge of improvements in these technologies,
as long as we aren’t “out-hacked” by the people we are tracking or escaping,
covert operations still runs much the way it has since WWII.

In our line of work, we
mostly guarded against leaving evidence behind, such as shell casings,
identifiable weapons or vehicles, or against being identified, visually or
otherwise. For instance, we all learned to become odorless in the field —we
used rubbing alcohol as deodorant, ladies never wore any makeup or skin
products, and we never took a menstruating woman out on covert field missions.
There is no technology that can keep smells from identifying a person who is
somewhere they shouldn’t be. Covering your tracks in the field hasn’t changed
much with new technology. Finally, one part of our field, the investigation
crews, would surely have had an easier time with the technological advancements
of the past few decades. Before any field crew was dispatched, before any
meeting rooms were bugged, or bodies had to be gotten rid of, we had to
investigate the claims of those hiring us. We never did our work without
proving first that we were after the correct person, a person who deserved
going after. We were not guns for hire and did not do the bidding of anyone,
government or private, just to improve someone’s personal gain. Starting with
the advancements in DNA testing, but including all manner of newer technologies
that can combine data from vast reaches into one search, to those that can
track phone calls, to voice and facial recognition, modern technology would
certainly have made the investigation part of covert operations easier for my
crew. Still, tracking is not done on a person by person basis, tracking is done
on a macro-level, looking at economic and stock trends that fluctuate in an odd
manner. This major component of our work is still best done by analysts with a
solid education who know what to look for, not by sophisticated equipment.

All that said,
technology, in many ways, has only made this line of work harder over the
years. Our prime concerns overall were more finely focused on not being
detected, identified, or caught, on becoming invisible, on hiding in plain
sight. Given these priorities, getting caught has become much more likely, but
catching the shadows hasn’t changed much.