People do a lot of things at Starbucks.
They drink coffee. They work on laptops or do job interviews. They go on sad, awkward first dates.
Apparently, they sometimes spy for the CIA.
I suggest this after reading an account by ex-CIA spy Amaryllis Fox from her memoir, Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA.
A former CIA clandestine officer, Fox served "from 2003 to 2010 deployed to 16 countries to infiltrate terrorist networks in the post-Sept. 11 world," according to a summary on NPR. She revealed that a CIA instructor taught her a neat trick that he'd come up with, using a Starbucks gift card, to let recruited assets signal that they needed to meet:
"He gives one [gift card] to each of his assets and tells them, 'If you need to see me, buy a coffee.' Then he checks the card numbers on a cybercafé computer each day, and if the balance on one is depleted, he knows he's got a meeting. ...
Saves him having to drive past a whole slew of different physical signal sites each day [to check for chalk marks and lowered window blinds]. And the card numbers aren't tied to identities, so the whole thing is pretty secure."
You might recognize the spy tradecraft from an earlier era -- chalk marks and window blinds -- if you've watched spy shows like The Americans.
(If you haven't watched The Americans, finish this article and then stop what you're doing. We've just identified your next binge-watch.)
Besides the Starbucks gift card idea, Fox revealed a few other tricks when meeting with assets:
- Meet at restaurants. "Restaurants and cafes are in many ways the lifeblood of espionage," she writes, adding: "Restaurants offer the opportunity to meet ... those with access to a government or terror group that might be able to help us predict or prevent the next attack. Sometimes those meetings are accidental. Mostly, they are planned to look accidental."
- Use a fake name. "We often work in alias so we have to be sure we're using the name that's consistent with the op."
- Sit with your back to the wall. It helps with "situational awareness and ensure the face of your conversation partner is turned away from onlookers in the room."
- Scout the place out ahead of time. "[M]ultiple entrances and exits can be helpful and private seating such as booths or hidden corners is a plus. ... Perhaps most important of all, the presence of security cameras and the type of clientele that frequent the joint."
Also, while they spend U.S. government dollars when needed to make assets and sources feel wanted and secure, a surprising thing to learn is that some CIA spies are apparently partial to chain restaurants.
"Panda Express, Panera Bread, McDonald's and Starbucks, which have a standardized layout and are open late into the night, are handy operational sites," Fox said, as NPR summarized.