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.