A Surveillance Operative’s Secrets And Tips

One of the questions I get fairly often is “what is the gray man,” and rightly so. It’s a concept that most people have a vague idea about, if any idea at all, since pretty much all they’ve been exposed to is maybe reading The US Army’s book on Human Intelligence Collector Operations – or what they’ve seen in movies (which is pretty terrible).

Luckily, this just happens to be something I’m very familiar with, having both been involved in real-world operations on source operations and surveillance teams as well as teaching agents in both classroom and field exercises (not to mention the crap ton of training I did, compliments of the government), so I’ll break down the basics for you as far as I understand the concept.

What is the Gray Man concept?

The gray man concept is the theory behind the tactics, techniques, and procedures of reducing an adversary’s awareness of your presence or actions, allowing you to operate in a semi-permissive environment.

In simpler terms, it means doing things in a way that any others either don’t pay attention to you or dismisses you from being a target while you go about your business. Essentially, it comes down to how to hide in plain sight.

It’s not just trying to be invisible or avoiding detection because it’s usually impossible to operate within those constraints. The gray man concept is basically an extension of OPSEC (Operational Security). It can be as simple as trying to not be picked to answer a question in class or as complicated as safely and effectively meeting a source to clandestinely collect intelligence without giving away your relationship or purpose for meeting.

What the Gray Man concept is not

Due to the fact that most people’s idea of operating in a clandestine or covert (they’re different and require different mission preparations but that’s entirely out of the scope of an unclassified discussion) is what they see in movies, most people – and even way too many trained agents – have the wrong idea of what the gray man idea is all about.

The gray man concept isn’t necessarily about just hiding and not being noticed – doing that is quite easy in comparison. These guys were obviously noticed with how they used orange vests to leverage people’s expectations of where they were allowed to go but one could argue that they used elements of being gray men because they were allowed to proceed into areas without anyone paying undue attention to them – and they were certainly not dressed to not be noticed in the general sense, but were dressed in a way that they were dismissed.

1 – The gray man concept is psychology-driven

What you wear can certainly have an effect on how gray you are but you have to go a bit deeper than that. Regardless of what you’re trying to do and how you’re able to do it, it all comes down to psychology – in particular, the psychology of your adversary.

It’s not always good to just walk around with a gray hoodie like this (although they do have their place and I have one I’ve used on surveillance) or to not carry something or act in a way that draws attention to yourself. It’s the attention that we’re trying to avoid.

The Reticular Activating System (RAS)

The RAS is a part of your nervous system at the base of your brain at the top of your spinal column and filters all your sensory input (except smell) so your mind isn’t overloaded with everything. Here’s a quick video to explain:

It’s a pretty powerful little piece of your brain that can can apparently also be leveraged to make some conscious changes in your life, but that’s another story (if you have any experience with this, please comment below).

What we want to do is use our knowledge of how the RAS works in order to make us essentially invisible if possible, and not considered a threat or a target if not. Don’t worry about exactly how it really works – I don’t know either. I just know some of the things that work and some things I’ve seen that have gotten people noticed.

I grew up a good deal of my life on Air Force bases. If you’ve ever been on one, you know that jets constantly take off throughout the day and they’re pretty damn loud. Once you’ve live there for a while, you stop hearing them unless someone comes to visit and makes a remark asking how we could stand to live with all that noise. That’s your RAS working there. You still hear the jets but you don’t take any notice.

2 – There’s a science behind how people see you

When someone glances your way, they make a subconscious scan of what you look like and quickly file it away. They notice the broad strokes of how you look and not necessarily the details. It’s these broad strokes that you want to either manipulate or diminish. To illustrate the point, take a look at a quick video on what’s called change blindness.

As you can see, you can change sometimes someone’s details quite a bit and people won’t notice it even if you’re in the middle of a discussion with you. That’s again, your RAS working. You may not be able to help that you’re a blond or have freckles but if you do it right, you won’t have to. By manipulating the major things that people notice, you can manipulate how much they pay attention to you.

How can we use this knowledge to keep someone from paying too much attention? Well, if someone is in a crowd of people who are all wearing casual clothes and you wear something drastically different such as a business suit, when people do a quick scan of everyone as they walk through, your identity will be distinguished from the rest. Instead of a sea of subtle changes that blend in with everyone else, their RAS will pay particular attention to you and may even bring it to the point of conscious thought where it could lead to them actively watching you.

If you’re going to try to blend into an area, you need to not just think about not wearing colors that may stand out, look at the general look of what everyone’s wearing and try to come up with the average look. If you’re at a beach and everyone’s wearing bright tropical colors, wearing something bland may actually get you noticed. In the same regard, if the majority of people are wearing blues and greens and you have the same style but it’s red, you may also stand out and garner some unwanted attention.

3 – Your actions are part of your persona

3a – Follow the crowd

If you’re wearing the right clothes in the right area with the right crowd but are the only one standing when everyone else is seated at a table, you’re gonna get noticed. If you’re at a library where everyone’s studying and you’re eating a sandwich, you’re gonna get noticed. Just like your clothing, try to take a quick inventory of what the typical person is doing and do that.

3b – Act like you’re supposed to be there

This is pretty much the opposite of the last paragraph but is something to consider.

In the Army, we were constantly told to walk with a purpose. Now this was typically because some sergeant didn’t want us to be leisurely strolling through the area but I found that it came in handy in trying to get into an area for penetration testing.

If you’re trying to maneuver through an area, sometimes people pay less attention to you if it looks like you’re focused on being somewhere or getting something done. I’ve also found that if you have something to support that look, such as walking around with a clipboard or a notebook, their brains assume you’re supposed to be there. This is pretty much what the guys above did with their orange vests and isn’t typically what you might do but there are certainly situations that it works.

4 – How you do something is as important as what you’re doing

Once you’ve decided on something to wear that will allow you to be in an area and not have someone take notice, you have to work on your demeanor. This part here is HUGELY important and usually how I used to pick out surveillance operators when I was on a counter-surveillance mission.

Your demeanor is basically not just what you’re doing but how you’re doing it. If you’re walking around with your head on a swivel looking for a threat, you look suspicious. It may work as part of a defensive posture so you don’t look like a victim but it could also draw some attention. Hollywood is really bad with this, especially when the actor is supposedly supposed to be some highly-trained operative and he’s skulking around like he’s about to steal someones cookies.

Ever heard that someone smells like a cop? That smell is typically due to their demeanor reminding them of how they envision cops act (when it’s not due to some combination of their pseudo-military outfit, hair style, and build). Same thing goes for people who’ve spent a long time in the military. They have a certain air about them, stemming from their stature, how they walk, a different level of confidence or awareness, or one of several other traits that military people have in common. If you notice these things you can take advantage of them to help you either blend in with others in the area or lead someone astray about your background.

It’s the same thing as when you travel. If you walk around looking like a tourist, you may draw attention by criminals. They can tell by not just where you go and what you do but how long you stare at something or how you’re continually scanning the area because you don’t know exactly where you’re at.

Basically it comes down to acting natural. People have expectations about how someone stands/sits/walks/performs certain actions/etc and if you do those things differently than their expectations, their RAS will kick in and now you’re on their RADAR.

5 – People-watching is a great teacher

Once you get an idea on what to look for, go out and start looking. Watch how people normally act in different settings. I used to take agents out on field trips to malls and book stores to people-watch just for this purpose.

Try to ascertain what they’re doing or what their background is just from what they look like, what they’re doing, and how they act.

  • If two people are talking to each other, what’s their relationship?
  • Who has military experience?
  • Any off-duty or undercover cops?
  • Why did they come to this particular place today?
  • What do you think they do for a living?
  • What are their hobbies?

Pay close attention the next time you watch a movie. Can you now see where the character ends and the actor begins? Do you see anything incongruent with how they move or what they’re doing that doesn’t fit with the character or scene? Can you tell who has had training and who hasn’t? Are the supposed Delta operators walking around with their fingers in the trigger, flagging their buddies with their weapons?

If you want to see a good example of this, check out the movie John Wick, starring Keanu Reeves. In my opinion, this movie is the best example of how close quarters combat is supposed to be done and you can tell that Keanu Reeves did a LOT of training for the part. Just check out this video of him shooting for further proof.

The more you observe others, the more you’ll know about what looks ‘normal’ in different situations and the easier it’ll be to blend in, or at least not stick out as much.


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