Communicate

How To Choose And Maintain A Cover Identity

In the movies, right after a spy loads up on gadgets, they get their “secret identity”: the person they should pretend to be to get behind enemy lines or into the villain’s lair. Intelligence professionals call this a “cover”, and it serves multiple purposes, one of which being to hide the operative’s true identity and reason for being there. You can use cover identities too, whether you want to blend in with the locals while travelling, negotiate on your boss’s behalf, impress a colleague with your knowledge, or just fool someone into thinking you’re someone else for fun.

Title photo made using pjcross (Shutterstock).

In spy movies, when someone assumes a cover, they don’t really do much to make it their own. In the real world, cover identities can require years of training and logistical support, especially non-official covers, which require the operative to completely conceal their true identity. Whether it’s a short assignment or multiple years, keeping up a disguise is an extremely difficult thing to do. Still, many intelligence professionals do and never even get the chance to complain about it.

Why You Might Want to Assume a Cover

Maintaining a cover isn’t just for disguise, although spies use it to convince others they’re trustworthy and avoid suspicion. Assuming another identity gives you the opportunity to think like someone else and put yourself in their shoes. You can more easily analyse someone else’s behaviour, or understand their culture and environment. Additionally, trying on an identity for size, even in your head, can help you get through difficult situations, like navigating a foreign city without a map. Photo by tankist276 (Shutterstock).

For example, putting yourself in the mindset of a travel expert encourages you to think of ways to get around an airport without getting stuck at security or being late to board your plane. Trying to put yourself in the shoes of a vendor you’re negotiating with can help you understand how to beat them at their own game. When I travelled to Las Vegas a few years ago, I had a really difficult time getting the hotel concierge to work with me when I called, so I waited and called back under the guise of “Alan Henry’s executive assistant”, who wouldn’t take no for an answer and expressed how “Alan is very busy in client meetings” and didn’t have time to deal with the trivialities of booking travel. It sounds silly, but the result? Instant respect.

Assuming a cover can be more valuable than personal gain too. The book Black Like Me detailed how one man — namely a white American — assumed the cover of a black man in America for six weeks to better understand what it was like. His experiences, detailed in the book, are an incredible read. Timothy Kurek, a conservative Christian, recently spent a year maintaining the cover of a gay man for similar reasons. He wanted to understand the experiences of people who lived a life apart from his, and he wanted to see if and how it would change him. The results of his experiment are amazing. Assuming a cover can be a powerful way to be a more well-rounded and flexible person, not to mention jump start your creative skills if you’re a blogger or journalist. Here’s how to do it.

Choose a Cover That Matters to You

Not too long ago, I visited the International Spy Museum in Washington DC, and one of the first rooms you enter asks you to assume your identity for the duration of your visit. You can choose from placards on the wall what your name is, your date of birth, your origin country, reason for travelling — all the details you might be asked at a border checkpoint. This is your first test: you should choose a cover that you can actually maintain. How risky you’re willing to be depends on whether you plan to disguise yourself, or just walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. Here’s what we mean:

If you’re putting on a disguise because you want to avoid detection, you should choose a cover you can easily maintain through questioning. Assuming no one is actively looking for you, you should be able to respond and converse as your cover with no difficulty. That means:

  • Basic details about your cover should come easily and without hesitation. Your birthdate, profession, place of residence and address, details of your home, favourite drink, dish or place to eat back home. Photo by Robert Anthony Provost.
  • You should be able to flawlessly discuss your cover’s profession. If you’re a project manager, you should be able to speak the language of Gantt charts, milestones and critical path. If you’re an investment banker, you should be able to discuss hedge funds, IRAs and the economic impact of dividend taxes, at least in general.
  • If your cover is a nationality not your own, you should be familiar with basic politics and news in your home country, and the specific geography of the places your cover is from. You don’t want to get caught because someone asks what school you went to in your cover’s home town and you can’t name it or its mascot, or because you’re visiting Japan as a South Korean and have nothing of note to say about the controversy over the Dokdo/Takeshima islands.
  • If your cover speaks with a different accent than you do, you should be able to emulate it without going overboard and arousing suspicion. Learn how locals pronounce their city names, especially if you’re using a regional or local accent. Learn how they sound when they speak your language, if they speak a different language than you do. If they do, you should be able to converse in it. Photo by Dmitriy Shironosov (Shutterstock).

  • Don’t be afraid to draw on your own experience, as long as it works with your cover. The most convincing stories are the truthful ones, so if you get into a conversation about your family or an experience that the conversation reminds you of, tell it. Telling the truth whenever you actually can goes a long way towards making your cover more believable, and in turn makes you more vested in your cover and what you can learn.

For example, my cover was a technology professional travelling to an east Asian country for an IT conference. I wasn’t well travelled, so I had an excuse for wide eyes, obvious questions and glaring cultural mistakes. It worked easily for me since much of my background is in technology, and I’ve attended such conferences in the past. If my real purpose were to exchange documents with a friendly operative in the same city, or get acquainted with a foreign contact we wanted to observe under the guise of attending the conference, it would be a perfect assignment.

If you’re walking a mile in someone else’s shoes you can take a few more risks, obviously. If your goal is to expand your horizons and try something new, leave your comfort zone a little bit and experiment. For example:

  • Before you leave for the airport, think about how a businessperson who flies every week would deal with boarding and de-boarding a plane, or security screenings. For example, they’re likely the type who packs light and starts opening up their bags and taking off their belt and shoes before they hold up the line. Look around at other travellers for that type of person and observe their behaviours. They probably know what they’re doing, and just watching can teach you a lot. Photo by Stefano Costantini.
  • If you’re trying to blend in with locals, learn where they hang out before you go. Try to pick up enough of the language that you can converse with anyone you meet on the basics, and default to “I’m sorry, do you speak English?” when the need arises. Review a few maps and try to get around without needing one when you get there.

These cases are specific, but the goal is to think about how an expert would handle the situation you’re about to walk into, and then do the legwork required to put yourself in that expert’s shoes. The knowledge will come in handy, whether you assume the cover of a professional negotiator by reading a few helpful tips before you meet with your boss to ask for a raise or you become an amateur chef by training yourself to identify spices and flavours before talking to the owner of a gourmet market.

In the former case, the goal is to avoid suspicion and to breeze through wherever you are. In the latter case, the goal is to learn something valuable about how to handle your situation, or even about the place you’re in or the people you’re working with. Whether you’re pretending to be a local because you need to fit in or because you want to leave the tourist-ridden paths of the country you’re visiting, putting on a mental disguise can help. Just make sure you choose one you’re comfortable with.

Learn As Much As Possible Before You Need It

We mentioned that the key to maintaining a cover is being able to avoid suspicion while emulating the appropriate behaviour of your cover. If your goal is to convince a fellow traveller that you’re travelling for business, they may ask you about your field, or how long the conference you’re in town for lasts. They may ask you where you’re staying in town, and whether you plan to do any sightseeing while you’re there. Be ready for those types of questions and prepare for them.

The same applies if you’re doing this for fun. Continuing with our traveller analogy, read up on some of the highly rated restaurants and off-the-beaten-path destinations in a city before you leave. Find out where the locals go to eat versus where the tourists frequent. Learn about local customs before you visit so you can maintain your “I’m a local!” cover more easily and fit in seamlessly. Even a little research goes a long way towards better understanding, whether you’re travelling, or just going to meet with some out of town colleagues and want to make them feel comfortable while they’re here.

Try On Multiple Identities for Size

We’re not talking about wholesale identity theft here (although intelligence professionals and people under witness protection do have to have identities manufactured for them), but we are suggesting you put yourself in the mindset of multiple people as their experiences suit you. To be fair, few of us will ever truly have to convince another person we’re someone we’re not, but pretending we are can offer an ego boost and help us deal with difficult situations. Photo by Elnur (Shutterstock).

Pretending you’re a jet-setting traveller in your head can help you relax on that eight-hour flight. While you sip a drink and pop on your noise-cancelling headphones, look around and know that you’ve got this handled and you’re not as stressed as other travellers around you. Putting yourself in the mindset of a commuter will help you understand the urgency everyone else has when walking through airports, subways and train stations so you don’t get in everyone’s way. You know to move to the side before looking at your tickets or to check your departure time. You know not to take up the whole escalator with your baggage, because you know it sucks to get stuck behind the tourist who does. It may sound silly, but a little confidence goes a long way, and a great way to get that confidence is to pretend — at least in some ways — that you’re someone who knows what they’re doing.

Stand Up to Questioning, but Don’t Be a Know It All

Even if you’re trying to avoid suspicion, you don’t want to pretend to know everything. Think about how you converse with people about things you’re knowledgeable about. Sometimes you’re willing to correct them, other times you’ll just let someone who doesn’t know what they’re talking about ramble on. Remember, the goal of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes isn’t to prove to everyone that you know everything about them. Instead, your goal is to avoid the kind of suspicion or note that a know-it-all arouses, or to learn something about the person, place or situation so you’re better prepared to handle it.

For example, when you’re travelling, don’t argue with a local about what you should see. If you’re trying to convince someone you’re from the same place they are, telling them their old high school doesn’t exist isn’t a good way to do it. The whole point of trying to engage locals is to get their experience! If you’re trying to learn a bit more about someone’s culture, there’s a fine line between participation and misappropriation, and you don’t want to be on the wrong side. If you’re negotiating with someone or trying to settle an argument, empathy can help you understand where someone else is coming from, but pretending to know someone else through and through can only make matters worse.

Know When To Retire Your Cover

You can learn a lot by putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, and you can even have a lot of fun by going to a party or an innocent social event and pretending you’re someone you’re not. You can even learn a lot about your own capacity to lie and to keep up a disguise in the process. Still, there is a point where you need to drop the cover and go back to your own identity. In most cases that would be after that party, when it’s time to change personas and be someone else in your head, or when your cover has gotten you into trouble (assuming you don’t need to keep it to get back out of trouble). Photo by Thomas R. Stegelmann.

You may also want to retire your cover when you’re with someone willing to teach you so you don’t have to observe and emulate, like if you’re travelling with a pro and they share their tips with you, or you’re about to go into a meeting and your boss says “let me do the talking”.

Remember, the basics of maintaining a cover (for fun) are study, memory and empathy. Most people who work with or have ever worked with or for the intelligence community are able to say they “worked for the government” but can’t elaborate on what they did or the technology they used. Then there are the ones who can’t even say that and have to maintain cover at all times. It’s a tough job, one that requires special people and training, but even trying it on for size for a short period can do wonders for your character and teach you to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes — as long as you’re free to drop your cover when you need a breather.


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