Editors Note: This post originally appeared on the Prepper Journal last January, but some concepts in prepping and life in general bear repeating again.
What is OPSEC? OPSEC is short for Operations Security or Operational Security and encompasses identifying critical information to determine if your actions can be observed by adversaries. To boil that down further, it is making sure bad guys don’t have any information about you that they can use against you. This could be to either harm you, or compromise you or your group in a way that would be detrimental. There, is that murky and ominous sounding enough for you?
If you have traveled in the Preparedness circles for more than 15 minutes, you have heard the terms “Good OPSEC” or “Practice OPSEC” to describe either how to or how not to let people know your business. As a Prepper who are your adversaries? Well, that would depend on the situation. In a Grid-up, everything is fine; (code White) type of scenario you are probably only concerned about, thieves and the Government. Oh wait, was that redundant?
In a Grid-Down scenario things change quickly. Or if you are in a WROL (Without Rule of Law) situation they are vastly different. In any type of scenario where lives are on the line as a normal course of survival; be it from conflict or catastrophe, who would you possibly need to be aware of? Potentially everyone!
I want to talk about the process of ensuring OPSEC and how this can relate to most everyone reading this post. Some of the topics I bring up and ideas for changing how you look at them could more accurately be described under INFOSEC (Information Security), but let’s not split hairs OK? Unless you are full time active duty military working in Intelligence, the generic bucket of OPSEC will suffice for this topic and our audience. Additionally, we could get way more technical and instructive and break out charts and diagrams and models but that is beyond the scope of this article.
Now that we have that out of the way, an explanation of the different processes in OPSEC might be worthwhile.
Identify Critical Information – The information that comes to mind most often is bank account information, passwords, Social Security Information, Taxes and Credit Card accounts. Going deeper, what information about you, your lifestyle, hobbies, health issues, political philosophy, your likes and dislikes, resources, skills, travel habits etc. could help your adversary? How many people are in your group? How much food and water do you have stored? What types of weapons and ammunition do you have? Almost any personal information can be used against you in the right situation. The key is figuring out what to share or not and with whom.
Analyze Threats – Who could be looking for any information on you that might jeopardize your security? Let’s take the situation of a normal day. You go to work, drop the kids off at practice, check the internet, run by the bank and so on. You aren’t Jason Bourne, or James Bond. Who would want to do anything with your info? Good question, but it isn’t as simple as Good Spy versus Bad Spy. It could be that a neighbor over hears you talking about a recent gun purchase and they call the cops because they are afraid you are going to go postal. Maybe a co-worker hears or observes you showing off part of your EDC and determines you are a risky individual and make them scared. See how that could get you in trouble?
Smart Phones – If you don’t realize it already, you are carrying around probably the single biggest threat to your security and anonymity. According to Reason.com:
Nearly 90 percent of adult Americans carry at least one phone. The phones communicate via a nationwide network of nearly 300,000 cell towers and 600,000 micro sites, which perform the same function as towers. When they are turned on, they (cell phones) ping these nodes once every seven seconds or so, registering their locations, usually within a radius of 150 feet. By 2018 new Federal Communications Commission regulations will require that cellphone location information be even more precise: within 50 feet. Newer cellphones also are equipped with GPS technology, which uses satellites to locate the user more precisely than tower signals can. Cellphone companies retain location data for at least a year. AT&T has information going all the way back to 2008.
What does that mean? That everyone’s very precise location at virtually any time is available by a multitude of agencies. If you don’t want anyone to know where you are, don’t take a cell phone with you. For a powerful visual, check out this Ted Talk from German Green Party politician Malte Spitz.
But that isn’t all. How many of us are reading this on a phone? The phone manufacturers and cell service providers keep records of every single search you make and webpage you look up and they are planning to use this to extend outside of your phone to present advertising to you as you get closer to stores, shopping etc. Again, if you think you have any privacy on a cell phone, you are mistaken. What can you do? For Smart phones your only real option (besides not carrying one) is either not search for anything you don’t want anyone to find out about, or set the privacy functions as far as they will allow. For most of the newer phones you can set browser privacy and history settings and if the manufacturers are honest, they say they won’t record this. I am not optimistic though so I assume that I am showing up big time on the grid. You will never be able to carry a cell phone and not have your location recorded virtually real-time.
Social Media – Social Media like Facebook and Twitter have a place I believe, but they must be used with caution if you want any of your information to stay secure. You can give away too much information on these sites and before you know it you could end up like the family who was robbed because of what their teenager had posted to Facebook. What can you do? For starters don’t tweet about vacation plans, large purchases or changes that could make you vulnerable “Mom and Dad are gone for two hours…”, or “headed to the beach for 10 days”. Also, consider the photos you are putting on these sites. Do they show anything, like in the case above, that you don’t want some people to know about? If you aren’t sure, maybe you shouldn’t be posting them. Does this require more thought and work? Yes, but if you want to keep your family safe and your information secure (while still using all of the latest Social Media tools) then you should consider what you are posting.
Friends and Family – This is more of a grey area because if you can’t trust your friends, who can you trust? I would say take each incident on its own merits and think about it. For example, when I started to really get into more of a Prepping mindset, the last thing I wanted to do was to push people away or make them think I had lost my mind and gone over the deep end. I wanted all of my friends and family to come along with me, to see the value in what I was discussing with them and to take steps to prepare themselves. I would have friends over and something political would come up and I would gauge their sentiments by asking probing questions before I would blurt out anything obnoxious. That is a normal rule of conversations though; never discuss Religion or Politics. My family breaks this rule every time we get together.
When you start talking about storing a years’ worth of freeze dried food or adding water catchment systems (rain barrels) to your house or purchasing solar panels and going off-the-grid, people are less cautious and are more comfortable with the old “What are you now, a hippy”? I would joke with my family initially saying that I wanted to move to a large piece of land with a fortified house (castle) and a moat with anti-missile batteries at the corners and an underground city with tunnels leading to my escape hatch. I called this my compound.
The joke went around for a while with my friends and neighbors laughing but as we kept talking about it and reality and current events did a better job of convincing them than I ever could, they started to see the light. Eventually, I let them know that my ideal plan would be for all of them to join me “on the compound” and not so slowly most of them agreed that they would like to move there. Several of my family and extended family and I have discussed plans for just that type of scenario, but how would this have gone if I came right out at the beginning and said I wanted to pack up everyone and move to my underground bunker? Friends are similar but you don’t want them necessarily showing up at your door if SHTF unannounced and begging. I do want all of my friends to be prepared though so I do want to continue to have conversations with them. I don’t necessarily open up about all of my preps right away, if ever though.
Neighbors – another tricky subject. Your neighbors will most likely be the people that you are depending on in a post SHTF scenario or they may be the ones you are defending yourself from. Knowing and forming good relationships with your neighbors can be the difference between surviving and dying. Period. Unfortunately, as a society, we are so much less involved in our neighbor’s lives than we were in the past. We don’t know what they think because we don’t speak to them in most cases. What is your neighbor prepared for? Will your neighbor turn to the authorities if the time comes when informing on your neighbors is the only option for a scared and hungry populace?
You have two options as I see it; either you try to make nice and get to know them to form a good bond or you have to decide what you are going to do if they turn against you. Actually, you may have to decide this regardless.
If you don’t know your neighbors and don’t plan on getting to know them keep your survival preps more closely guarded. Don’t walk around in the front yard with your latest rifle purchase and don’t advertise that you have “enough food for 6 months”. Ideally you would be able to partner with your neighbors for food and protection if the SHTF. They have a vested interest in protecting their home too.
Trash – our trash is one of the easiest ways for criminals to find out about us. Shred your mail and this is a non-issue. I won’t get into the recycling police yet, but that is coming in another article.
Assess Insider Knowledge
OK, so now we know some of the many areas where we should be cautious. Now you have to ask yourself, who has this knowledge? Like I said, we keep most everything between ourselves and family and I try to ensure they all know not to blab about things like firearms or stockpiles of beans and rice. Who else knows information that you don’t want getting out? Think about this and let it come to the front of your mind before you talk about the latest shipment from Mountain House you received, or show everyone your new AR-15.
Apply Appropriate Measures
We know some of the threats, now what do you do? Should you learn Morse code or create a new language that only you and your family understands? Probably, but that isn’t very realistic is it? I prefer the common sense approach. Sometimes it doesn’t work, but anything you can do to limit the information people can use against you the better. Start by watching what you say and how you say it. This goes for sharing information. Take some time to figure out if what you are doing daily is what you would be doing if the grid went down with regards to information. Does this make you cagey? Perhaps, but after time and practice you will get better. I don’t view this as lying, I simply redirect if the subject goes somewhere I don’t want it to or I am a little vaguer than I need to be. You will know it when you see it. The key is to start thinking in terms of keeping your affairs as quiet as you need for the situation you are in.