Surveillance Detection – A CIA Officer’s Guide to Protecting Your Family

Part I: Surveillance Detection Basics

How To Know If You’re Being Followed

Surveillance detection is a fancy spy term for identifying if you are being followed. It is one of the best skills an individual can learn to protect themselves and the ones they love. In the “spy” world, being able to identify if you have surveillance or are being followed by the intelligence services of foreign government or a terrorist can mean the difference between life and death for yourself or anyone you meet. In fact, this invaluable skill is the difference between life and death in the real world, as well.

I reached out to my former agency teammate Mark Laine at Center Line Systems to talk over ideas for teaching some of the basic elements of surveillance detection. Mark is a real-life master when it comes to surveillance detection so I wanted to pick his brain on how to take our training and experience regarding surveillance detection and translate it into some easy techniques that can be employed by dads, moms, and citizens everywhere to improve their personal safety practices and protect their loved ones.

What we came up with is a basic guide that will cover:

  1. What surveillance detection actually is
  2. Why you should know if you are being followed
  3. How to identify if you are being followed
  4. Safety steps you need to take to protect yourself and loved ones from danger

This is not a guide on how to lose your surveillance like in a Hollywood movie. This is a guide to identify if you are being followed and what to do once your confirm you are being followed.

What Is Surveillance Detection?

Surveillance Detection is a series of techniques that you can employ to identify if you are being followed. The word “surveillance” really means to “observe.” While someone parked outside your neighborhood or place of work who is watching your comings and goings is true “surveillance,” so is someone following you in a car or on foot. We’ve all seen movies where a guy looks in the rear-view mirror and sees a tail six cars back. Or when a woman walking down the street ducks into a shop to escape out the back to lose her pursuer. Ah, Hollywood… but this time they aren’t all that wrong.

Why Do You Need To Know If You Are Being Followed?

Whether you are a “spy” or a soccer mom, one of the biggest threats to our personal safety is complacency. Everyone wants to believe the minor confrontation over a parking space, the guy driving like a jerk on the freeway, or the creepy person staring at you in the shopping mall is nothing more than that. However, everything from how you are dressed, how you carry yourself, your actions or even the location you are frequenting may bring you to the attention of criminal elements. Worst case scenario, your child caught the eye of a predator and now he wants to know where your kid lives or goes to school.

These are all very real scenarios, perhaps too real. In each of these instances you feel safe because you are in a crowded location or simply because you don’t even realize that you are being targeted. I mean, come on, who would follow me home from the grocery store just so they could find out where I live so they could come back to break in and steal all of my Gucci stuff, right? The problem is that predators, whether emotionally unstable or consciously targeting potential victims, don’t necessarily strike immediately. Maybe they are biding their time until the situation or environment changes and the opportunity to strike develops.

The point, whether we admit it or not, is that each of us is always a potential target. To help mitigate the risk of becoming a victim, a couple basic strategies to employ on a daily basis are being aware of your surroundings (Situational Awareness) and conducting some basic surveillance detection techniques. Situational Awareness is a major component to Surveillance Detection. If you haven’t already done so, you can read more about it in my previous article.

Part II: How To Identify Surveillance

Are You Being Followed?

In the world of an intelligence officer, there are many different types of surveillance and techniques to use to identify if you are under surveillance. In the civilian world we are more likely to face a very specific type of surveillance and we can get away with employing techniques that require less finesse. So, for the purpose of this article I will keep it as simple as possible so that the skills discussed can be remembered and easily executed when needed.

Again, situational awareness cannot be stressed enough here as the only way you are going to identify a pursuer is by paying attention in the first place. Identification by being hit over the head is truly a poor technique. Surveillance detection works for both travel on foot or in a vehicle and is executed through three easy tests… but only if you are paying attention. It may sound strange or as a challenge to your ego, but you need to train yourself to “pay attention” to your surroundings.

Three Tests

1. Distance Traveled Test

The concept here is simple. If a person or car is still behind you over a long distance, then you place that person/car higher up on your mental list of potential pursuers. However, this test only shows us one piece of the puzzle and if used by itself can produce false results. For instance, you may be traveling in a straight line, say from Reno to Las Vegas, with lots of other people on the highway. So, pay attention to those “potential” targets, memorize what they look like, but just remember they could be going to the same place as you.

2. Length of Time Traveled Test

The longer you are traveling, the higher the likelihood that someone who is following you is going to stand out or be noticed as you have had more “time” to notice them (that is, if you are paying attention). Chances are this person has not had the chance to change their clothes or vehicle and hopefully seeing the same person or car for the last hour will start to set off some warning bells in your brain. Again, by itself this test only shows a piece of the puzzle and is designed to help shape or create that mental list.

3. Change of Direction Test

Changing your direction of travel, either on foot or vehicle, helps avoid the random “going in the same direction” or “out driving around town for the same amount of time” random event. The more changes of direction you can incorporate into your routine, the better chance you have of narrowing down your mental list of potential suspects. If going from Point A to Point B consists of six turns and the same vehicle is behind you for each of them, well, you might want to pay attention. That said, this test is like the others, can produce false observations if used only by itself. For example, everyone uses this shortcut, this is the main/easiest way to get to the freeway, departing your neighborhood to the main street that leads to the grocery store, etc.

To reiterate, each test on its own doesn’t really specifically identify if you are being pursued. Rather, each test helps you sort through a list of people/cars you can observe. Unless someone is actively making it obvious by doing things such as driving right on your tail, or shaking his fists or fingers at you, you need to weed out the random or weird events to identify the potential threats. The best way to do this is to combine all three tests and learn to vary your routines, your routes, and the times at which you travel.

Performing the Three Tests

First of all, practice makes perfect. Don’t practice until you get it right, practice until you never get it wrong. In other words, create routes and incorporate them into your daily routine and maintain your situational awareness at all times. The “spy” world calls these Surveillance Detection Routes, or SDRs. Simply put, it is just a route that, when conducted either by foot or vehicle, incorporates all three elements discussed: Time, Distance, and Change of Direction. Infusing these three elements into how you navigate your daily routine can take the mundane commute to work, weekend list of errands you are running, or a trip to the grocery store and turns them into personal security opportunities that will help you identify if you are being followed.

Tips While Driving

As you begin to practice this skill, start concentrating on those three tests as you drive or walk around. If you have been driving across town in a straight line, take a few turns out of your way. Doing so will help you determine if someone is following you by isolating, or weeding out, a lot of the cars you’ve seen driving behind you up to that point. Throw in a few stops to increase your driving time and add some turns between stops to further narrow down the list of potential vehicles. Jump back on the main road and repeat.

Tips While On Foot

If you are on foot walking downtown from Point A to B, conduct your route in the same way. Change directions and keep an eye on anyone that may be behind you. Remember, your urban environment provides all kinds of opportunities to look behind without “looking behind”. Think about using reflections in windows, doors, bus stops, and windshields of passing vehicles to see who is behind you. To add some time to your walk, stop to read a menu posted outside a restaurant, duck into a store to grab a coffee or use a restroom. Most folks will pass you by if you do.

So you don’t appear paranoid by looking behind you constantly and raising other people’s suspicions, add some turns to your route. As you turn, swivel your head to see where you came from – this is normal as you should look left and right before crossing traffic! This technique is great because it forces you to always change directions and can be done mindlessly to always know what is going on behind you. Think situational awareness and repeat until you are able to determine if someone is or is not following you… then decide what to do next!

Generally speaking, after you’ve traveled over time, distance, and changed direction, you should be able to say “hey, that car/person is still following me.” That may be the worst case, but you know what the scenario is… now what do you do?

Part III: What To Do After Confirming Surveillance

Steps to Take After Identifying You Are Being Followed

What should you do if you have identified that you are being followed? Simple – get to safety!

Let’s back it up for a second. What if (seeing as all of this is new to you) you are not totally sure if this person has been following you or it’s just a random event or your imagination? Well, Hollywood isn’t the real world, which is where you are located and where there are actual laws and consequences, so trying to “lose” them is stupid, dangerous, and probably not going to work for you. However, here are a couple easy, safe and legal ideas that you could try:

Simply turn around… pull into any area that easily and quickly allows you to turn around and go back the way you just came. It really would be beyond coincidental if that suspect vehicle behind you performed the same maneuver, wouldn’t it? If you are on the freeway and there is an off-ramp that has an immediate on-ramp as well, then just exit the freeway, wait until it is safe to cross traffic and simply drive back onto the freeway. Again, I would call this a pretty solid clue if that suspect vehicle does the same thing.

Yup, now you feel pretty darn confident that you are being followed, so let’s talk safety. Of main concern – do not stop and exit your vehicle. Do not lead them to your home, your kid’s school, your work, or somewhere you frequent regularly. Don’t try to “outrun” them, this isn’t a movie. Unless your life is in imminent danger, aggressive driving without proper training will only increase the odds that you will get into an accident or cause an accident, thereby harming someone else.

Stay Calm, Change the Situation

Stay calm and change the situation to your advantage and personal safety. Call 911 and drive to the nearest police or fire station. If there isn’t a station nearby, think of a well-lighted and public location that would provide you with easy escape routes, where you can also easily keep this person in view (from a safe distance), where law enforcement can easily find you, or where it is obvious there are lots of video cameras or security guards. Don’t let the bad guy get the advantage. Avoid places such as roads or alleys where you could become stuck, blocked in, cut off or otherwise isolated, parking ramps, or any such place where maneuverability and visibility are limited.

Prevention is Better Than A Cure

Like a disease or illness, prevention is much better than the cure and good safety habits are the Vitamin C of personal security. So start changing your habits to include practicing situational awareness, creating surveillance detection routes, mixing up your daily/weekly routines, and the most challenging practice ever – stop communicating your schedules, events and vacations on social media!

I keep saying “practicing” for a reason. Practice means you are actually training the behavior and perfecting it. For example, is it enough to own a gun for personal safety? No, of course not! Firearms are potentially lethal weapons and thinking all you need to do is own one is utterly irresponsible. You need to train and become more than just “proficient” with that weapon otherwise you put yourself and others at risk when the situation calls. Is it enough to take an annual self-defense course? Again, not even close. To become, and then maintain, your proficiency in any skill, you need to practice regularly and without ego. Practice good personal safety techniques the same way… regularly and always with an eye on improvement!

Teaching Kids Personal Safety

Knowing how to identify if you are being followed is a skill that could potentially save lives. And like situational awareness, teaching my wife and children how to identify if they are being followed is a fun activity to bond over while increasing their security/survivor mindset.

I believe it is my responsibility to protect my family. It is also my responsibility to pass down my knowledge and passions to my children. In fact, one of my favorite activities is covertly turning my kids into little spies. First and foremost, it allows me to teach my children how to protect themselves. It also allows me to pass on an important part of my past to my children. I hope what I pass down is not just memorable, but allows them to live long, meaningful lives.

And I hope this basic guide on Surveillance Detection is simple enough for you and your loved ones to employ every day to keep your families safe. I really enjoy sharing some of my time and lessons learned from the spy world into our community through safety education. So, if you have any article suggestions or questions on the articles I have written, please reach out.


Reno Dads is all about exploring fatherhood in all its glory. If you enjoyed this article, check out Teaching Kids Situational Awareness (expanded discussion on our podcast) and 15 Travel Tips From Former Undercover CIA Officers for more strategies on keeping your family safe. As always, thanks for your support. Find us on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

5 Comments Add yours

  1. aki says:

    Great stuff. It should be added that real pros will tail in multiple teams to reduce the likelihood of detection. But that should be of little concern outside of places where kidnapping is a common national economic activity.

    If we are talking about good habits, every now and then check the underside of your vehicle for anything that used to not be there before. The cheapest usable GPS trackers that I’ve seen so far were about $20 in China.

    For the truly paranoid, power down all cell phones and pull the fuse on your car audio system while you do your counter surveillance run, as directional bluetooth receivers can be built for as little as $10 a pop. (Note that the cheap stuff is mostly useless, but gives an idea of what pros have available to them.)

    1. David Bradfield says:

      Completely agree with the multiple teams and don’t forget static surveillance, which is super challenging! Fun surveillance detection routes takes hours, include car changes and the thrill of having no electronics on you! That would also be a fun article to write.

      1. aki says:

        Thanks for the great article. I was thinking about static surveillance, too, but thought that it wasn’t really in scope because of the resources that it takes. It’s almost exclusively the purview of governmental actors. Speaking of governments, on their home turf they don’t even need to post people anymore, thanks to scanned license plate numbers from traffic cameras, cell phone location info, and social media activity. (And other fun stuff like that.)

        On the upside, all this stuff makes solving some types of crimes a lot easier. There was a break-in in the house next door in Singapore 2 weeks ago. The police apprehended suspects within 48 hours, presumably thanks to the broad electronic trail that people leave these days.

  2. David Bradfield says:

    Thanks for reading and the comment, Aki!

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