The Poltergeist – an intrusive surveillance example

This story was written to provide an intrusive surveillance example, to illustrate one of the points made in my Commentary on Duty of Care.

Poltergeist! There’s a ghost in my house. The words throbbed in Sabra’s mind as she inspected the things that had moved. The poltergeist had been flipping through the notebook on the small dining table she used as a worktable, because now everyone had left home – even her husband. Her laptop had moved, things had shifted in her precisely arranged kitchen, and under the stairs her collection of dress-making supplies looked different.

Poltergeist - another Intrusive surveillance example

The poltergeist had been gentle compared to her son. He’d been very much alive when he’d thrown things at the walls, at her, and at guests who made him angry. Then he’d left with his sullen, cold-faced friends, and she had not seen or heard from him for three months. There had not even be an entry on his social media pages. Sabra no longer feared him, but there had been a new fear: that something would happen to him. His friends were always polite to her, but she could see them for what they were.

Sabra slumped onto a hard chair, ignoring the groan of the wood from her weight. She let her plump face sag against her loosely clenched fists. The meaning of the poltergeist was obvious: her son was dead. This was his soul, returned to haunt her. She looked again at the book that had moved. His ghost was so gentle. It was like when he was a child. Perhaps he had found peace in death. She tried to thank God for that little thing, but all she could feel was emptiness. She gently ran her fingers over her notebook at the thought that his ghost had been touching it and, by this small action, they were again connected.

That night she lay in bed listening to the endless rumble of traffic from the road and wondering what his ghost would do next. She feared it would be like him and change and start throwing things at her. That’s what happens with poltergeists – she had read about it, and seen it in films. Sabra got out of bed and looked for things of value in the house and put them into safe places, well padded. Then she went into the kitchen and took the sharp knives and put them under heavy objects. Ghosts can shift heavy furniture, but they’re not as strong as the living.

The next day she called her best friend and explained. ‘That son of yours has driven you insane,’ was the sharp response. ‘There’s no such things as ghosts.’ So she went silent and looked on the web to try and find if there was news of him. She studied unidentified deaths, but none of them matched him. She wondered if he has been abroad when he died.

The days past, and there were no more news of him. And there were no more signs of her poltergeist. Maybe it really was a figment of my imagination, she said to herself.

And then three months later her son appeared on her doorstep. His clothes were in a bad state, his hair needed cutting, and he needed a shower. ‘Why are you looking at me as if I’m a ghost?’ he asked. ‘I’m not. I just need food, something to drink, and some money.’ There was only a little bit of money in the house. She got more from a cash dispenser, but when she returned he’d disappeared. ‘The bogie men are after me,’ he had told her, and she’d wondered whether it was insanity or truth.

Three days later she came downstairs at the start of the day, and she found things had moved again. There was even a smell of cigarette tobacco. For a moment she wondered if her son had broken in, but no money had been taken. While she had been sleeping, somebody had crept into her house like a burglar, and that person had been checking on her.

Sabra shuddered at the thought of the intrusion. But even worse was the thought about her son. Her darkest suspicions were confirmed: he had become involved in something so bad that the intelligence services were trying to find him. Somehow they had known he visited and they had come looking. The nature of the poltergeist was now clear.

The fear of the ghosts was replaced by a fear of the unknown person who had come into her own home. Clearly they believed she was supporting her son. Perhaps they were gathering evidence to give to the police to prove she was involved. There was nothing in the house that was incriminating, but that wouldn’t satisfy them. She knew how secret intelligence people worked – everyone she knew said the same about them. First they planted the “evidence”, then the next day the police arrived with a warrant and found it. There would be law courts, she would lose her job and reputation, and even her friends.

Sabra started searching through the house. The planted evidence must be somewhere. She just had to find it. She imagined a gun or the parts for an explosives, or perhaps it was drugs, or the hidden papers linking her to bad people. And then another thought: perhaps they’d skip the police and law courts, and go directly for her. If they could wound her, they figured she would call her son for help, and then they would catch him. She wondered how it would come. A physical attack, or perhaps they would freeze the little money in her bank account, or threaten her job. And it was all for nothing – she had no idea where her son was, or what he was doing.

Intrusive surveillance leaves a long memory

Intrusive surveillance example – commentary

Obviously this intrusive surveillance example is fictional. The point is that when people realise they are being watched by the State, their minds can play all sorts of tricks on them, especially if they’ve encountered bad practices in authoritarian states.

Legality. In this example, the presumption is that her son was on a terrorist watch list and there was an intrusive surveillance order on him. Obviously it would be completely illegal to “plant” evidence. It would also be difficult to do it credibly and with secrecy – such an act is more likely to drag the intelligence services into the law courts, which breaks the priority of secrecy-first.

Competence. The surveillance person who entered the house would have been trying to avoid leaving any sign of entry. This is already slow and careful work, and even with photographs of everything that is touched, it’s prone to mistakes which an observant person can see. There are also the clues that are difficult to hide, like when the subject has a sensitive nose or the surveillance person walks on a squeaky floorboard.

Duty of care – suggestions for improvement

I have never been an intelligence worker. The suggestions here come from industry experience.

Adrian Cowderoy, story teller and BCS Chartered IT Professional.

#1. Limit the amount of intrusion. Obviously the presumed terrorist needs to be watched, but does his mother when she has so limited contact with him? Could sufficient information have been collected without entering her house? Or could the entry have been kept light to get just enough information without risking being noticed?

#2. Estimate vulnerability. As part of planning the surveillance, don’t just think about the subject’s ability to identify and circumnavigate surveillance; also prepare a psych report of how they may react. That includes a simple analysis of different possibilities, the probability of each of these, and suggestions of how to mitigate the down-sides for them.

#3. Increase attentiveness to errors. After contacts with a subject, or entry into their property, it’s helpful to be objective about the risks. (“After observing the subject throughout the underground journey, I did not follow him through the exit with everyone else, but went to the return platform. I could not see if he noticed.”)

#4. Monitor regularly. The reviews of a subject should already include an assessment of their psych state, to look for changes and new insights. The assessment should look into their situation from their perspective, there should be an explanation for their observed behaviour, the probability of their anticipated next actions should be reviewed (as from #2 above), and there should be a warning if something fundamental has changed. This is a “light touch” version of the same SEES research and analysis sequence as for the main target. (For the appropriate part of SEES, see chapters 1-4 of “How Spies Think” by Sir David Omand, ex director of GCHQ. His examples relate to wars and such-like, but the technique also applies to very simple cases and also in industry. See and

#5. Find a mutual friend, if possible. If research around the subject’s contacts shows someone who can be trusted it’s worth exploring if a channel could be opened, should the need occur. There is also the trusted stranger approach, of putting someone near the subject who he or she suspects of having a link to the intelligence services. To build confidence, it may only take a few words, carefully considered beforehand.

Is that a lot of work? Only for #5 (finding a mutual friend or trusted stranger). For #1 and #2 it requires careful thought and discussion, but that could result in a quicker and less risky intrusion which would save time. Paying attention to a subject’s reactions (#3) has always been important – the key is to create a work environment where surveillance people are honest about the random errors that are inevitable. Monitoring (#4) should be done anyway – the difference is to give it structure using a light-touch version of SEES.