The Outer Circle – Disrupting and Mitigating Hostile Surveillance

When considering the various strategies that can be employed against hostile surveillance, one of the most important distinctions to be made, right off the bat, is whether the strategy requires highly trained, covert operatives for its execution, or whether it can be performed by more conventional, overt security officers.

In my last article, I established four general strategies for confronting hostile surveillance – two of which belong in the overt/conventional category, and two in the covert/specialized one. There are various pros and cons to each category but there are two straightforward facts that simply must be faced. The first is that there have indeed been cases where the lines had gotten blurred, and conventional security officers had accomplished things that would normally be expected only of specialized covert operatives. But since it’s unwise to construct policies around anomalies and exceptions, conventional security programs should be formulated around more realistic goals – ones that can be achieved as a matter of policy rather than wishful thinking. The second fact is that conventional security accounts for the overwhelming majority of what can be found in the field. This means that by sheer numbers alone, the opportunities conventional security officers have to disrupt or prevent hostile surveillance far outnumber those of more specialized covert security forces.
The main question now becomes, how can more conventional security officers seize these opportunities, and how can we write realistic security policies to address them?
Before we go a bit deeper into the mechanics of how conventional security officers can deal with hostile surveillance, it’s important to remember that hostile surveillance is not in and of itself our main problem. This is because it’s not in and of itself the main goal of the hostile entity – it’s merely a tool. The actual goal of the hostile entity is the attack itself. It’s very easy to get drawn into a discussion about exactly how to detect hostile surveillance, while missing this simple point. We obviously want to detect hostile surveillance, but from the private security perspective, the only reason to do this is to prevent the attack. It’s therefore worth considering other effective methods for disrupting hostile surveillance and planning – thereby preventing an attack – that don’t necessarily depend on high-level surveillance detection – not because we don’t want to conduct SD (I for one am a huge fan of it), but because SD is not something that most security officers are in a position to conduct.

In order to begin talking about security mitigation of hostile surveillance, we need to start by introducing the concept of circles of security. This concept, which has been successfully used for many years, draws two general circles around the secured property in question – the inner circle and the outer circle. The inner circle can be defined as the property that is being protected, along with its immediate exterior. In cases where the property is a building, the inner circle could be the building itself, along with the sidewalk around it and maybe also the cars that are parked along the curb. The outer circle is the whole area around the property, stretching as far as a security officer can realistically visually control (1-3 blocks on average, depending on the surroundings). One of the most important things to include in the outer circle (which, when you think about it, isn’t literally a circle in most cases) are the hostile surveillance vantage points. These vantage points, as had been explained in a previous article, can be mapped out by a surveillance detection consultant who should assist in putting together this type of security plan.
It should be mentioned that there could be more than just two circles of security. My personal opinion is that the more circles the better, but the number of circles will be restricted by the physical structure and the amount of resources the organization can afford to spend. I find that the two circle dynamic, in addition to being very realistic, is also helpful in understanding the relationship between proactive and reactive security. This is because the general posture of the inner circle (which mainly includes access and property control) is oftentimes more of a reactive one, where other people are usually the ones taking the initiative by approaching security. Whereas the posture in outer circle security is one where the security officer reaches out first (visually and sometimes physically) to detect, acknowledge and even politely engage people in the surrounding area. And since much of the planning process takes place in the outer circle, this is the circle we need to concentrate on in order to mitigate hostile surveillance and planning.

Outer circle security can be achieved by maintaining three factors:

  • Deterrence by appearance.
  • Detection.
  • Exposing.

Deterrence by appearance is the deterring factor that can be created by the appearance of the security officer – as it’s being viewed by hostile surveillance. It’s important to mention that this deterring appearance doesn’t at all mean that the security officer should look aggressive or menacing in any way.
One of the most important lessons to be learned from the Hostile Planning Process is that there are always other potential targets, and that hostile entities consistently choose the easiest one. This means that properties that are concerned about hostile surveillance leading to an attack should strive to not appear as the easiest ones on any potential list. And one of the easiest ways for a facility to not appear as an easy target is to clearly display (or even advertise) the fact that it has some solid security measures in place. This doesn’t mean that facilities should reveal their entire security programs, but rather send a clear and general message about their not being an easy target, and nothing says this better than placing professional looking security officers where they can be easily seen from the outer circle. The deterring presence is therefore maintained, not through any show of aggression, but by a show of professionalism and an external projection of visual awareness – which is far more than most facilities currently have. Deterrence is not so much (or not necessarily) a factor of scaring away the hostile entity, as it is of making it easier for the hostile entity to decide to go somewhere else – somewhere easier.

Detection is arguably the hardest and most active part of the outer circle. In essence, what security officers should be looking for in the outer circle is people – since hostile surveillance is ultimately conducted by, and for, people. It’s true that surveillance can also be aided by various recording devices, and that these can be left unattended (perhaps disguised as something else or hidden in a parked vehicle). But these devices must first be placed there by people – people who need to not only know where and when to place them, but possibly also retrieve them later on. Tools of the trade can definitely come in handy, but they won’t be able to completely eliminate the human factor.
The question to ask now is what kind of people should security look for? The most common answer I hear is that security should look for anyone suspicious or out of the ordinary. But this is the part where we must all remember what we’ve learned about hostile surveillance. Namely, that the very first thing that a well trained or skilled hostile surveillance operative will make sure to do is not look suspicious or out of the ordinary. Does this mean that security should simply ignore suspicious looking people? Of course not. Most hostile individuals are actually not very skilled at surveillance, and will therefore be pretty easy to spot. And though it’s only a minority of individuals who are skilled at surveillance, they make up for their small numbers by being far more dangerous. The takeaway here is that we shouldn’t simply write off someone who doesn’t happen to look suspicious. If you think this means we should detect everyone – suspicious or not – then you have understood the point I am making.
It should be mentioned that detecting every single person in a large area for an extended period of time is much easier said than done. In fact, if we want to be honest about it, we will have to admit that there are going to be people that security will not be able to detect. But this is why the first factor – deterrence by appearance – is so important, and why even if the security officer cannot detect everyone out there (passing by in a moving vehicle, observing out of a distant window, etc), the officer should make sure that anyone observing will be able to detect him/her.
Attaining visual control over a large area, and then maintaining this type of control for hours at a time, is quite difficult, but there are a number of ways that can make it more manageable. One good way is to do the following:
Security officers should start by establishing a secure area at the beginning of their shift or operation. The idea here is to invest a relatively short amount of time in which you dedicate all of your energy to detecting anyone in the outer circle. After you’ve done this, you’ll need to maintain visual control for the duration of the shift or operation, but since you probably cannot maintain this exclusive dedication to the outer circle for hours on end (in most cases security officers will probably have other duties to perform as well), the question becomes, how can you still maintain visual control over the outer circle while you also perform other tasks?
One of the best ways to do this is to break the outer circle up into numbered zones. The zones obviously won’t change the content of the outer circle, but they do make the large amount of visual information a bit easier to digest. Think of this like putting chapters in a book. Next, break each zone up into its constituent parts – think of this as paragraphs on a page. The easiest way to do this is by naming what you see in each zone – taking a kind of inventory of what’s in front of you. Say for example, zone #2 has four cars parked on the street and one person sitting on a bench wearing a gray sweater. Quickly name the person “Gray sweater guy” (or however you choose to name him), name the cars (which conveniently come with their own names in the form of make and model), and move on to the other zones or tasks you have to fill. The idea in naming what you see is not to memorize this information. Memorization would be to still recall what’s in zone #2 even after you look away from it – which would be way too much information to keep in your head, once you consider all the zones you have to keep track of. Recognition, on the other hand, means that when you look at zone #2, you should be able to recognize what you’re seeing if it was there the last time you looked at it. You should be able to glance at zone #2 (maybe after having to screen an individual into the facility, or after looking at another zone), and almost immediately tell if what you’re seeing looks familiar or if anything in the zone has changed since the last time you looked at it. If the next time you look at it, everything in zone #2 looks familiar – the same “Gray sweater guy” on the bench, and the same four cars parked on the street – you should be able to determine that nothing in zone #2 has changed, and do so without wasting time and energy wondering who the person on the bench is or whether the silver Honda Accord had been there for your entire shift. If, on the other hand, you look at zone #2 and see a Ford F-150 pickup truck that doesn’t look familiar, you can easily and quickly conclude that something in the zone has changed, and do so without wasting too much time and energy. Naming objects and people will help us take an unfamiliar, random and forgettable area, and turn it into a well defined and familiar location, where any changes can be quickly and easily noticed.

Exposing, as the term implies, describes the action that a security officer takes as soon as he/she has detected someone in the outer circle. Remember, since we have established the need to detect anyone in the outer circle – suspicious looking or not – we will subsequently need to expose anyone we detect. Thankfully, the act of exposing can usually be done in such a nuanced and polite way that people who are not conducting hostile surveillance (the overwhelming majority) will not even notice their having been exposed in this manner, let alone take any offence to it. This is a rare case in which an omelet can be made without breaking any eggs, and hostile surveillance can be deterred without usually scarring or offending anyone else. The act of exposing can usually be done very subtly by the security officer letting the person in the outer circle notice that the officer sees them, and then politely acknowledging them with a slight nod of the head. The simple beauty of this type of soft exposure is that to a person who is not conducting hostile surveillance, this slight nod of the head will barely even register as a form of “Hello”, while to a hostile surveillance operative, it will be received as a detection and acknowledgement of presence by a security officer. The reason for this is that hostile surveillance puts an individual in a very precarious and stressful position, which makes them hyper sensitive and aware of any attention they receive – most especially from a security officer at their intended target. For this reason, officers can treat all non-suspicious people in the outer circle equally, with the same level of politeness, and the individuals in question can sort themselves out based on their intentions. The majority won’t mind the nod of the head, while a hostile surveillance operative will have to reluctantly conclude that his/her location, time and general description has just been detected and acknowledged by the target’s security officer. It’s not even all that crucial for the security officer to record or document each and every time they do this. There’s nothing wrong with keeping track of these things, but keep in mind that since the officer does this to anyone they see – all day, every day – it’s not all that realistic to expect that amount of information to be recorded; nor indeed will such a large amount of ‘white noise’ be all that useful. Keep in mind that from the hostile surveillance perspective, even the risk of such a thing should, at the very least, make it obvious to the surveillance operative that there are far easier targets out there, where there will probably not even be a security officer positioned outside of the building, much less an officer who detects and acknowledges hostile surveillance operatives in the outer circle.
Though the act of exposing doesn’t usually necessitate more than this soft type of acknowledgement, there are times when the officer might want to slightly wrench up the level of exposure. It should go without saying that if the officer detects an imminent danger, he/she should immediately call 911, but this still leaves quite a bit of open territory between soft engagement and emergency response. The general idea here is to simply enhance the exposure dynamic – spelling out more clearly to the person in the outer circle that the security officer has acknowledged his/her location, time and general description. This can be achieved by the officer showing more direct and visible interest in the individual, getting closer to the individual, or even going all the way and politely engaging him/her verbally. Whenever an officer engages a person off property, there are a number of very important things to consider: First, the officer should never attempt this if the situation seems like it might put the officer in any danger. Never attempt this alone after dark, is a good rule of thumb. Secondly, it’s important to remember that as the officer is going off property, and onto public property, or onto another private property, the officer has absolutely no legal right to demand any answers or any form of compliance. For conventional security officers, the real purpose of these types of excursions into the outer circle is to wrench up the exposure factor, and not actually, or necessarily, to investigate about hostile surveillance. This means that even when an individual is very politely questioned (one of my favorite ways of doing this is to smilingly ask if the person is waiting for anyone, or if there might be anything I can do to help), the answer that the person gives (if he/she decides to answer at all) doesn’t actually matter all that much. Odds are that the person isn’t actually conducting hostile surveillance, but keep in mind that a well trained surveillance operative, in addition to working under a visually projected cover, will also be equipped with a verbal cover story – to be used for precisely this type of questioning. This means that it’s quite possible for the security officer to be convinced by the person’s reply, whether it’s truthful or just a good cover story. Nevertheless, neither the question the officer asks nor the answer the individual gives is all that important. The main idea is letting the person know that security has given them so much attention that the officer has crossed the street to engage them. This, in general, is pretty bad news for any surveillance operative, who will now have to conclude that security has very actively noted their location, time and now detailed description. In these situations, even if the well rehearsed cover story manages to convince the security officer that the operative is innocent, this cover story might simply fill the role of an ejection seat – enabling the the operative to eventually walk away, but with the knowledge that it might be very unwise to return.
Another option, in cases where the officer might not want to, or is unable to engage an individual up close, is for the officer to visually project a much stronger type of acknowledgement than a simple nod of the head. This can include displays of overt nervous observation of the individual in the outer circle, pointing at the individual, talking into the radio, looking at the time and writing down a quick description into a notepad, taking photos of the individual, etc. The idea here is not necessarily to report the presence of the individual (the officer doesn’t even need to necessarily press the PTT button on the radio), but to simply send a very strong signal to the individual that he/she has been detected and exposed. An important footnote to add when considering such exposure “enhancements”, is that the analogous omelet of deterring hostile surveillance will in this case necessitate breaking some eggs – in the form of scarring and/or offending non hostiles as well. This means that officers should apply such “enhancements” very sparingly, and only in cases when doing less will be even riskier.

To sum up how the three Outer Circle components might fit together, consider the following narrative:
As a hostile surveillance operative gets near enough to the facility (maybe during an initial drive-by, or walk-by, in the area), the surveillance operative is already able to see that the target is being protected by professional looking security officers, who are extending visual awareness to the outer circle. The appearance of this alone should be enough to set the target apart, and should tell the surveillance operative to not waste any time here before simply moving on to easier potential targets. Nevertheless, if the operative decides to take what he/she believes to be a safe position (vantage point) in order to find out more about the facility anyway, the security officer will convey to the operative that this was a mistake, since in a very short period of time, the operative will be detected and acknowledged – further emphasizing the point that, at the very least, they should take their plans elsewhere.

I feel the need to mention that none of this will guarantee safety and security (nothing actually can), but it makes it that much more likely that a property with this level of security will not be the easiest target on any conceivable list of potential targets. And though there are many ways in which the risks of hostile surveillance can be managed, the above mentioned strategy is one which can be adopted and successfully carried out by conventional security forces.

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