There’s little more frightening than the sneaking suspicion that someone may be following you, whether it’s on foot or in a car. Here’s how you can tell whether that person behind you is watching you as much as you’re watching them.
Why Would Someone Follow Me? I’m Nobody!
It’s not just spies that get tailed. Law enforcement doesn’t usually waste time and resources following random people, but they’re not the only ones interested in the lives of others. Private detectives, angry exes, friends or family of exes, or even that guy you accidentally cut off changing lanes a few miles back may have been following you this whole time, seething and ready to give you a piece of their mind (or possibly their fists.)
Don’t underestimate how even small things can set dangerous people off. These are the easiest people to identify and avoid. We’re not saying live your life paranoid, and if you can’t think of a reason someone would follow you, odds are you’re not being followed, but we are saying that a little knowledge and awareness of your surroundings at all times goes a very long way.
How to Tell If Someone’s Following You
Let’s be clear: if the professionals are following you, you probably won’t know it. Real spies use a host of tricks to make sure you’ll never know you’re being followed. Multiple operatives observe you, and switch off at predetermined points while a control operative, in contact with everyone in the field, manages their movements. That means the guy that followed you for the past two blocks will pull off at the next exit or pop into the Starbucks you passed for a coffee, and someone else will take over while you wonder where he went. There are some ways to tell is an amateur, random person, or a PI is following you though:
- Stay aware of your surroundings. It’s common sense, but you’d be surprised how many people walk around every day staring at their phones or looking at the sidewalk in front of them, paying no attention to the world around them. Keep your head up, and make note of the people you see and the cars you pass. If you’re not aware of your surroundings, the rest of these tips won’t help you.
- Don’t start looking over your shoulder. Remember, normal people are the ones who do inconspicuous things. Spies and PIs know better than to draw attention to themselves. As soon as you start glancing over your shoulder every three steps, they’ll know you’re suspicious. They’ll likely drop farther back or disengage entirely and pick up later.
Start with appearances. Look for a car you’ve never seen before in your neighborhood or along your commute, or make note of a vehicle that seems to be taking all the same turns that you’re taking. The same applies for people. Here’s the catch though: if a road-rager is following you, they’ll just close, which is easy to spot. If someone is actually trying to follow you, they’ll probably drive past you occasionally, then change lanes and fall back. On foot, they’ll walk next to you, or even pass you and take a side street that eventually ends up going the same direction that you’re going. Look out for vehicles that make all the same turns that you do. More Intelligent Life suggests you keep an eye on a person’s shoes. Coats and hats change easily, but shoes? Not so much when you don’t want to lose someone. Photo by Robert Red.
- Slow down. Slow people and vehicles are hard to tail, and risk the exposure of the operative, because they now have to stay near the target. Pull into the right lane and drive the speed limit. See what happens. If you’re on foot, slow down or stand to the side and fiddle with your phone a bit (while keeping an eye on what’s going on around you, of course) and see who slows down with you, or who walks past and then suddenly reappears later. Some people will tell you the opposite: that you should speed up and see if they do too. An amateur would speed up too, but a professional would only speed up if they think you might turn or take an exit, or if you’ll leave their line of sight.
The video above, part of a training series by SAFE International, has some more suggestions to help you figure out whether you’re being followed, and what you should do if you confirm that someone is trailing you.
What You Should Do If You Think You’re Being Followed
If you’ve tried the above and think someone’s on your tail, you have some options.
- Call the police. Do this first. If you think you’re in any kind of real danger, this is the best, first, and probably only course of action you should follow. Additionally if it’s local authorities, they’ll disengage. If it’s another law enforcement agency, they may get pulled over themselves. If it’s a PI or a road-rager or any other civilian after you, the police are the best people to handle the situation. If you’re on a highway, stay on it. If you do get off a main road, drive to the nearest police station.
- Go somewhere public. Public, and with tons of people. Find a crowded restaurant and grab a seat. Order a coffee and read something on your phone. Head into the nearest shopping mall or large, crowded store. This gives you two benefits: first, you have the cover of a lot of people (stick close to the crowds.) Second, you can observe your observer, get their description, and hand it over to the police.
- Don’t panic. Don’t start speeding, or try to make quick turns or duck into alleys. Ducking into the subway before the doors close looks great in the movies, but the smart people already have someone on the train or platform waiting for you. Start speeding, and you’ll just drive into the next tail car’s territory faster. When professionals follow someone, they don’t need to know where you are at all times, they just want to “house” you, or observe your behavior and patterns. If you’re worried it’s an angry ex or someone you cut off, stay on main roads, and if you have to stop, leave plenty of space between you and the car in front of you, just in case you need room to maneuver or drive around it if someone approaches your car.
Change your behavior to confuse your follower. If you’re in a car, take the next exit, then get back on the main road. This isn’t something most people would normally do, and if someone follows you off the road and then back onto the highway, you know something’s up. Better yet, they should know you’re on to them, and disengage. Make four right (or left) turns. Few people need to drive or walk in a circle. Image by Oleksiy Mark.
- Change your patterns regularly. Don’t go straight home, especially if you’re worried the person following you intends to harm you. Take a different route home from work than you did yesterday. Go to a restaurant you’ve never been to. If you think someone’s been following you, they’re probably already aware of your patterns, so suddenly taking the freeway home when you normally take side streets may throw them off. Riding the subway uptown when you live downtown will do the same thing. If you think the person wants to harm you follow these tips on avoiding an attack, some of which echo points we’ve made here (staying in public, calling the police, etc.)
Professionals, like PIs, usually won’t interact with you—they just want to know where you’ll be and when so they can plan for later. They’re the people you can throw off with changes to your habits and driving tricks. People who want to hurt you are another matter. Your safety is paramount.
Some people will suggest you follow the follower, but we can’t recommend it. If the person following you means you harm, that’s a very dangerous game you’re playing. You should be focused on getting to a safe place, keeping your head and wits about you. With luck, you’ll never need to worry that someone is following you, but it’s important to be able to tell if someone is, why they’re following you, and how to avoid, deter, or lose them.
If you have a digital safe with a passcode entry, a few things could go wrong. You could forget the code, the electronic mechanism could fail, or someone could change the code without you knowing. In the event you need to break into your own electronic safe, here’s how to do it.
The technique you use to crack an electronic safe is called safe bouncing (which is an accurate name once you see how it’s done). It’s apparently easy enough for a kid to do, but looks like it could take a bit of practice. As you can see in the video above, you literally drop part of the safe against the table (or whatever surface it’s resting upon) while turning the locking knob. If your timing is right, you’ll have turned the knob when the safe’s lock bounces open for a brief moment. This works because many cheaper safes have locks that lift. Better safes have counterweight mechanisms so the lock is held in place even when the safe is moving. You won’t be able to bounce those open, but you’ll have no problem with the lower-end options. If you’re successful, the deadbolts will recede into the safe’s door and you’ll be able to open it up.
While good for those times when you lose your passcode, it’s not so great for those times when someone tries to rob you. If you’re concerned about the safety of a given safe, you might want to try this bouncing technique before your purchase.
There are fewer opportunities to put your social engineering skills to the test better than trying to convince someone you work at their establishment. Whether you just want to serve yourself a drink refill at a restaurant or you want to surprise your significant other with a birthday bouquet, here’s how to get in unnoticed.
If you walk around looking nervous and glancing from side to side, people will be able to tell that you don’t belong. Worse, they may approach you and ask questions. It may be unavoidable, but the most important thing to do if you’re trying to blend into any environment is to look like you belong there. That is, stand up straight, walk confidently like you know where you’re headed (even if you have no idea where this hallway will lead you,) and acknowledge people as they acknowledge you—the way you would in your own office or workplace.
This makes the other people around you subconsciously believe that you’re there for a reason. An old friend of mine who used to do penetration testing and physical security evaluations at large companies found that all too often she could find her way to the CEO’s office to hand-deliver her report just by walking around the building looking like she belonged there.
Take Advantage of Human Nature
The best way to get into a building or office that you want access to is to go in behind someone else. Most people call it “tailgating,” and it’s a serious security issue for offices, apartment complexes, college dorms, anywhere with restricted access, but it’s your best friend here. Photo by Lydia.
It’s easy to slide up to the door when someone else is going in and grab it as it closes, to beg the person going in to hold it for you, or—more often—just walk through while the person just ahead of you walks in. Most of us would consider it rude to just slam a door to a building on someone or let an elevator close when someone is just a step behind us, especially if it’s a secure door where you would otherwise have to fumble for a keycard or other device to get in, so we do the nice thing and hold it open. You may have taken advantage of it on a day where you forgot your badge at work—you can do the same just about anywhere.
Dress the Part
This part requires some familiarity with the place you’re going to visit, but no one is going to believe you work in an office where everyone is wearing shirts and ties if you walk in wearing a polo and jeans. Make sure you dress at or slightly above the dress code for the place you’re visiting. Fewer people will question a person wearing a button-down shirt and a slacks in an office full of polo shirts than will call out the guy wearing cutoff jean shorts and a t-shirt in the same office. It’s also important not to go too far over the dress code: you’ll stick out wearing a tie in an office where everyone wears t-shirts and jeans (although that can work to your advantage, as we’ll discuss later.)
Ideally, you’ll be able to slip into an office and get around to where you need to be without any questioning at all. However, if you’re overdressed, underdressed, or just unlucky enough to run into a curious employee, you need to be ready to deal with it. Photo by lululemon athletica.
If you’re overdressed compared to them, point out that you’re there on an interview and you’re just coming back from/going to get a cup of coffee. Alternatively, if the company you’re visiting has a large office or a whole building, say that you work in another office, or that you only started recently. If asked, “What do you do?” Respond that you work in a department almost every company has, like IT, or human resources. Whatever you say, make sure you have something in mind already. It shouldn’t be scripted, but you should have it ready to go.
If they buy it, ask for directions—you’ll be surprised how often you get them. If they’re not buying it, keep in mind some of these tips to subconsciously persuade people. Mirroring the person’s body language and movements will definitely make them feel at ease, and reciprocating their questions with your own will turn the attention away from you and make them think about how to respond. Ask them what they do and whose team they’re on. Ask them how that’s going, and if recent changes in your department have impacted them at all (note: this is an especially good trick if you claim to be in IT. Almost everyone will take the opportunity to talk or gripe to a new IT staffer about something.)
Remember to Smile
Not always, of course—grinning to yourself will make you stand out—but keeping a relatively upbeat and positive demeanor will make you stand out less than someone who’s hunched over, shifty-eyed, and ducking around corners wearing a Mission: Impossibleserious-face. People by nature avoid confrontation, and you can use this to your advantage by being confident, being positive, and engaging when appropriate.
This isn’t the movies: your goal is not to be so convincing that you could charm everyone, you just want to get in, surprise your fiancee in front of her coworkers, or drop off your boyfriend’s lunch without him or his coworkers knowing, and leave without attracting attention to yourself. Ultimately, you don’t want anyone to know someone who doesn’t belong was even there, even if you were right in front of their face.
If James Bond logs on to a computer, he doesn’t want to leave a bunch of files, cookies, or his IP address out there for someone to find. It might seem extreme, but sometimes it’s a good idea to take the same precautions yourself.
In this post, we’ll walk through how to use a USB stick or DVD to anonymize, encrypt, and hide everything you do on a computer no matter where you are. When we say “browse without leaving a trace”, we truly mean it. Using the Linux-based, live-boot operating system Tails (The Amnesiac Incognito Live System), you can use any computer anywhere without anyone knowing you were ever on it. Tails is a portable operating system with all the security bells and whistles you’ll ever need already installed on it. You can install Tails on one of your many dust-gathering USB drives or a DVD. We’ll show you how to set up your own portable boot disc in the second section, but let’s start by taking a look at what you get with Tails.
What Tails Is and What’s Packed Into It
The magic of Tails is that you don’t have to do a lick of work: once you create your boot disc you’ll have a completely anonymous, totally private operating system preloaded with all the software you (or James Bond) would need. What’s packed into it? Let’s take a look.
The Software Packed Directly into Tails
Once you create your Tails boot disc, you’ll be ready to reboot your computer into an encrypted and private operating system preloaded with all the software you’ll need to browse the web, email, IM, and edit documents. Regardless of whether you choose a DVD or USB nothing you do is left on the computer you booted from.
- Built-in online anonymity: The key feature that’s going to appeal to most people is Tails’ built-in online anonymity. This comes in the form of the customized web browser Iceweasel built using the anonymous web browsing technology from Tor. The browser also includes popular security extensions like HTTPS Everywhere for secure browsing, Adblock Plus to block ads, and NoScript to block Java and Flash. Other than those features, the web browser works exactly like you’d expect a web browser to work.
- Built-in encrypted email and chat: Additionally, you also get encrypted and private messaging. Tails includes the Claws email client with OpenPGP for email encryption and the instant messaging client Pidgin with an OTR cryptography tool that encrypts your IM conversations.
- Built-in file encryption: When boot Tails from a USB drive instead of a DVD, you can save documents to the thumb drive and they’re automatically encrypted using an encryption specification called LUKS. (Since the DVD is read-only, you can’t save any files—which is its own form of security.)
- A full suite of editing software: On top your web access being private you also get a full suite of work and creative software. Tails comes preloaded with Openoffice for editing documents, Gimp for editing photos, Audacity for editing sound, and plenty more additional software.
Now let’s walk through how to set up a boot disc for yourself.
Step-by-Step Guide to Set Up Your Own Tails DVD or USB Drive
Tails is pretty easy to set up on your own and it doesn’t differ much from setting up any other Linux Live CD. However, a few extra steps do exist to verify your download.
Step 1: Download the Necessary Files
You need to download two different files to get started with Tails: an ISO (an image of Tails that is burned to a disc) and a cryptographic signature to verify the ISO image:
The developers behind Tails recommend you verify your Tails ISO to make sure it’s an officially released version that hasn’t been tampered with. We won’t walk through that process here, but they have instructions on their web site for Windows and Mac or Linux.
Step 2: Burn Tails to a CD/DVD
You can find documentation for creating a Tails USB from scratch on each operating system here. Alternately, you can more easily make bootable USB installation of Tails after you boot from a Tails live DVD. For our purposes we’re going to burn Tails to a bootable DVD because it’s an easier process than creating a USB stick from scratch.
On Windows: Right-click the ISO image, select Burn Disc Image, select your DVD drive.
On Mac: Right-click the ISO image, select Burn “tails…” to Disc, select your DVD drive.
Once it’s finished burning let’s boot into Tails and kick the tires.
Step 4: Boot into Tails
Stick your Tails DVD, CD, or thumb drive into your computer and reboot. The process for booting into a disc or external drive depends on your system, so lets look at how to do it on Windows and Mac.
On a Windows System: Different Windows computers have different default settings for booting from an external drive. If yours doesn’t already check for a boot DVD first you can always edit the BIOS boot order (often the DEL key at startup) to make sure your computer looks for a CD or USB before it starts. Alternately, you can closely watch the BIOS screen at the beginning of your computers startup for the Boot options shortcut (usually one of the function keys). When you get to the boot option menu, select your DVD drive and you’ll boot into Tails.
On a Mac System: When you turn on your Mac immediately press and hold down the Option key to access the Startup Manager. Select the Tails DVD (the description will actually say “Windows”) and you’ll boot into Tails.
Step 5 (Optional): Clone the DVD onto a USB Drive
Now that you’re booted into Tails it’s easy to clone your boot DVD onto a USB drive directly from the Tails operating system. Here’s what you need to do:
- Connect your USB drive to your computer.
- Select Applications > Tails > Tails USB Installer.
- Click the Clone and Install Button.
- Select your USB drive, click “Create Live USB Drive” and let the program run.
When the installation is complete you’ll have a bootable USB drive. The benefit of the USB drive is that any files you create in Tails are saved and encrypted directly on your device. However, a USB drive could theoretically be hacked into if you leave it around which is why the ultra-paranoid might prefer a read-only DVD for Tails.
Also, Macs don’t support USB booting without downloading and installing additional software called rEFit. This means you have to download and install rEFit on every Mac you want to boot into Tails from a USB drive.
Creating a bootable Tails disc is a simple process and a great use for one of those USB drives you have laying around doing nothing. Since you can use Tails on about any public computer you run into it’s a great way to keep your browsing and usage hidden from the world. It’s even beneficial on your home computer since you don’t have to alter your system in any way.
- Skyfall – Cyber War Becomes Cool (infosecprofessional.com)