How to Communicate Sensitive Information: Old School Spycraft Skills & Secret Communications Systems

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By Sandra D. Lane

The online world is so easy, so reachable, and we take advantage of it in believing that it will always exist. But power grids fail, back-up generators run out of fuel, batteries run out of juice making inverters useless, and human beings will ultimately refuse to ride bicycles all day long just so somebody can access the internet. Imagine that scenario; one where we experience complete power loss – total power grid failure across a nation.

It seems the U.S. Government did exactly that, and the President’s National Infrastructure Advisory Council (NIAC) released the findings of a study in December 2018 called “Catastrophic Power Outage Study”. In the publication’s introduction regarding “What the Nation Faces”, can be found this resounding statement:

The NIAC was tasked to examine the nation’s ability to withstand a catastrophic power outage of a magnitude beyond modern experience, exceeding prior events in severity, scale, duration, and consequence. … challenged to think beyond even our most severe power disruptions, imagining an outage that stretches beyond days and weeks to months or years, and affects large swaths of the country. (source)

The study went on to say in its findings, in regards to state, city, and local levels (emphasis mine):

Given the growing frequency and severity of disasters and other risks, there needs to be an increase in individual accountability, enterprise, and community investment in resilient infrastructure. There is a misconception that events occur infrequently. There needs to be more individual accountability for preparedness. (source)

‘A misconception that events occur infrequently.’ If nothing else, that one sentence convinces me to keep prepping. You know people need to get their heads out of the sand when the government itself has that to say. Especially when the study is on massive power outages.

How will you contact family members when the grid goes down?

In a grid-down situation, there will be a direct need to get in touch with family, loved ones, and friends. We don’t live as we did sixty years ago with Mom and Pop on one street and the kids all getting married and moving out to new homes just down the street or around the block. We have families in other counties, states, sometimes countries. How do we get in touch with them in a major grid-down situation? The FCC mandates that cell towers have backup batteries, which means in a grid-down situation you should be able to use your cell phone for another 4-5 hours before that too dies. Success, of course, depends on cell tower overload and other factors.

What if that doesn’t work? What about landlines? The ‘old’ kind that hangs on the wall with a spiraled cord from the receiver to the base?  They require electricity, and in a relatively smaller disaster like a hurricane, they may still be your best bet as power companies rely on generators to continue carrying out some of their functions. Those, unfortunately, will run out in a few weeks, making even that phone useless for making calls. What about the plain old landline phones that are hardwired in and require no power? Well, they kind of do still require power, albeit minimal, which is provided by your local phone company who, again by FCC decree, is required to have back up generators. When those fail, the phone fails.

If you’re rural/homesteading, chances are you’re doing just fine and can hold your own – depending on the circumstances – with family contact plans in place. If you live in the city, or just on the outskirts in a suburb, again depending on the circumstances, it may be a bit more difficult. It’s not illogical to surmise that small towns will close off their county lines, preventing anyone from entering. Most likely this will be in an effort to keep out the ‘riffraff’. In a nationwide catastrophe or disaster, it’s not illogical to think some towns might try to prevent people from leaving as well. Power begets corruption and local populations dwindling will lower tax income for those in power. Less population means less money. Closing the town ‘gates’ in an attempt to keep the money around is quite logical; but also, tyrannical.

Or perhaps none of that county/city limit thing affects you, and you and your household have packed up and are headed to a safer spot because gangs are springing up all over the place. Police are human beings and have to take care of their own families, making crime rampant, home burglaries commonplace, and other worse crimes are becoming the norm.

Keeping communications private in an SHTF situation is crucial.

Regardless if you’re bugging out, staying in, doing business with locals, or having to deal with local factions trying to take over (don’t laugh – it will happen), there has to be communication. In many cases, it may have to be secret. In an earlier article, we’ve already seen how the internet simply can’t be trusted. With that in mind, we need to train our minds now to see the world wide web as bugged, under surveillance, and completely unsecure. That’s step number one. Step number two, especially with the strong possibility that it may well one day be inaccessible, we need to think outside the box and, especially when it comes to sensitive communications, prepare now so we know how to communicate later.

In prepping, our family has admitted that we won’t always have cell phones to rely on, so we’ve made other arrangements involving who waits a period of time before leaving, who goes where immediately in certain cases, who stays where they are, – that kind of thing. We’re also a very private family so we’ve learned certain ways to communicate with each other, sometimes without being together.

Techniques used by spies can protect your family’s privacy – and perhaps save your lives.

Welcome to the art of Old-Fashioned Espionage. What in the world does espionage have to do with a power outage?!? Maybe nothing. Most likely everything if you’re going to survive. “Gray Man” is a big part of surveillance and espionage, and being able to converse with family and friends in a manner in which others can’t interpret could mean the difference between life and death in many situations.

John A. Nagy, one of America’s leading scholars on the subject of espionage, is quoted as saying “The modern intelligence world still uses most of the intelligence methods from the American Revolution but with more sophistication in its encryption”, and if I may very humbly say so, he’s absolutely correct. Codes, ciphers, dead drops – these are still used today by those who don’t want their information widely known, and that’s pretty much what your PC does: encryption. We’re just so used to hearing about it that it’s become the norm; commonplace and so no big deal.

But how do we communicate covertly without computers and encryptions, and all that?

The old-fashioned way.

Create and personalize a set of codes.

What is a code and how difficult is it? A code is anything you want it to be and as difficult as you want it to be. A good example would be Morse Code. Morse Code is a type of code that uses dits and dahs (incorrectly called dots and dashes) in a particular rhythm to indicate letters, numbers, punctuations, and commands of a language. It was developed in the 1830s and is still used today. A LOT. This code, while recorded on teletype and telegraph machines, and translated at times onto paper, was never meant to be written down, only heard then repeated.

Codes can be created and personalized in virtually any way you want. Substituting one letter for another, symbols for letters, etc., but in order for someone to break the code, including the person you want to read it, they have to either know the code or they have to have the key. Think of a map. All the little symbols on the map that indicate something but you aren’t sure what? At the bottom somewhere is the “map key” that explains what each symbol means. The same goes for a code. In order to break the code, you have to know, or figure out, the key.

Our family likes the idea of ‘signing’. We don’t adhere to the traditionally used sign language, but have instead created our own signs and know them. In this way we are quiet if we have to be, there is no paper trail, we can easily understand what each other is trying to say just by looking at each other’s hands, and no key that can be found.

Codes can be similar to the signs and symbols used by hoboes.

When I was a kid my Grandmother used to fret about leaving the kitchen screen door unlocked. Her house was situated right beside very active Railroad tracks. I didn’t understand because at home we never locked our screen doors even if the exterior door was open. So, me being the nosy me that I am, asked her why the screen door had to be kept locked. She said “The Hoboes! They come down from the tracks and knock on the open doors… Dirty, nasty creatures!” My eyes must’ve been as big as saucers when I asked her what a ‘Hobo’ was, but she paid me no mind, shushing me and saying “They’re beggars; tramps! We don’t want them here!”, then running me off to play.

It seems a bit funny when I look back on that time period, but hoboes are real and, due to the nature in which they had, and have, to survive, incorporated the use of a code to communicate with each other. What are hoboes? Homeless people. As kind and loving as my Grandmother was, viewing the hoboes (homeless that used the railway system to move about in her area) the way she did was a mix of cultural norms and fear. However, whether she knew it or not, that screen door really didn’t protect her from hoboes; their codes did.

The National Coalition For The Homeless has an example of those codes on their page, yet they don’t call them codes anymore, but sign language instead. This sign language isn’t used by ‘signing’, although I guess some of it could be, but rather is scratched, marked, or written on fences, poles, railroad cars, rocks, doorways, and the like to leave other hoboes pertinent information about the area. Not all of these codes are the same, and vary from area to area with some of the same symbols adopted and others altered or new ones made up.

The example of using hobo signs is one you might incorporate into your family’s communication system. By using the hobo sign concept and creating your own new code, you can leave marks in specific areas that tell friends and or family that are coming to your house, or even passing through because you’re no longer there, important information about the area and/or where you’re headed. You can also leave a trail of markings that only they would be aware to look for on a pre-designated path. Some of the best materials to do this with are jumbo crayons, chalk markers (waterproof), spray paint, and even duct tape will work on the right surface.

Scytale Ciphers are simple to make.

In an occupied scenario or one where you simply don’t feel comfortable talking but have to get information out, you can use something like the following as long as the bulk of it is prepared beforehand.

Items needed:

  • A small pencil sharpener (keep several cheap ones on hand for just such occasions)
  • A box of regular old fashioned pencils (again, keep on hand)
  • Cheap thin width ribbon (keep a few rolls within easy access)
  • Some blanks sheets of paper
  • Small bit of tape
  • Fine tip permanent marker – whatever color is best for the ribbon.

Before meeting a family member or friend that you need to share private information with, take one of the pencils and, starting where the metal meets the wood on the eraser end, lay the end of your ribbon on the pencil transversely and tape it lightly. Now wrap the ribbon slowly but rather tightly (not too tight – you don’t want to stretch it out of shape) around the pencil, without overlapping, until you reach about ¾ to an inch from the side that will possibly be sharpened. Cut and, again, lightly tape the end to the pencil.

Now, using your fine tip permanent marker, in one line only, write a short message that your recipient will understand. For example, “TODAY NOT GOOD COME FRIDAY”. Short and simple. Always print the letters (no cursive) and either all caps or all lower case. No cursive helps to make it easier to read, and all caps or all lower case makes it faster to write. Now unwrap the pencil, making sure to gently remove the tape from both ends. You should have a strand of ribbon that has unintelligible marks on it. Now take the ribbon and, this time, tie it around the center of the pencil as if you were going to attach the pencil to something. Next, gather a few sheets of blank paper and roll them loosely into what looks like a scroll. Finally, tie the ribbon, which also holds the pencil, around the scrolled paper, then into a small bow of sorts.  When your recipient arrives, present it to them as a birthday gift with the clearly heard remarks of how you couldn’t afford to buy them anything but know how much they love to draw.

This method can be applied in many different ways using different items as long as the recipient knows what you’re doing. You can substitute yarn, twine, even strips of fabric as long as they can be written on and wrapped without overlapping, and you can use pencils, pens, sticks, anything you can wrap the material around as long as the recipient can use it to read the message. And, the item used to wrap the material around has to have a clear indicator of where the material should start. For the pencil, it’s where the metal holding the eraser meets the wood. For a stick, it could be a clearly seen notch. You get the gist of it. 

In school, we use to pass notes by asking if we could borrow someone’s pen. Of course, the person who was passing the note already knew this trick so it went over rather smoothly. They would write a note on a slip of paper, roll it up tightly, then remove the ‘guts’ from the pen, insert the note, put the pen back together and wait for the recipient to ask for a pen. Once the person asked if they could borrow a pen, the sender would offer, the recipient would accept with a thank you, then return to their desk where they would read the note. If the message requested an answer, the recipient would then write their reply on a separate slip of paper, put it back in the same pen, tell the teacher the pen didn’t work, and give it back to the original sender. Eventually, of course, the teacher started to catch on and the ‘trick’ didn’t work anymore.

The same goes for true espionage. As organizations and ‘spy rings’ caught on to the methods of communication used by the enemy, newer tricks had to be thought up and more advanced technology was used. Where school tricks differ from cloak and dagger techniques though, is that the old ways never go out of style. Spies incorporate tools that work the best in a given scenario; old or new.

Dead Drops can also be used to share information privately.

Dead Drops are a major part of standard spy tradecraft. When done properly, they can completely separate the messenger from the receiver so that certain others are left scratching their heads trying to figure out how information was getting around. Dead drops are also still used today. If you leave a key outside your home under a rock somewhere, you’re using a dead drop. As well, on February 18, 2001, Robert Hanssen, an agent for the FBI, was arrested after leaving a package of classified materials at a dead drop site. He had been selling classified information on the United States to Russia for 22 years.

A dead drop is typically around some sort of ‘sign’ post, or rather an indicator that the person you’re waiting for, whether they’re the one dropping off or picking up, has already come and gone. (Might be a good reason to carry chalk or crayons and have a type of hobo code..?) But we’ve all seen samples of dead drops on tv shows and movies. Trash cans, newspaper stands, hollowed-out books, hollowed-out coins, (yes they still exist), empty bird’s nests, unused mailboxes; anywhere there is an empty space not being used. So if you don’t want to risk a one on one delivery of that special birthday gift of a pencil, ribbon (or twine), and paper, you can forego the paper and leave the pencil and string at a predetermined dead drop.

You can use invisible ink to hide private information.

Yes. I did say invisible ink. In April of 2011, the CIA revealed records from World War I that showed recipes used to make invisible ink. One of my long-time favorites always involved writing on a magazine cover with milk. Simple. When the milk dried you could lightly sprinkle ashes (I smoked back then) over the writing and gently rub it across with your hand, making the words appear. This worked because the magazine cover has an added UV coating, making it difficult for the milk to soak into the paper, thereby allowing it to dry first. It’s a good bet that invisible ink of some sort is still being used today by those in the field. Do a search on your computer for invisible ink recipes to find more ways to use this method. Obviously, milk won’t always be abundant.

(Suggestion: Buy a laminated map of your state. In milk, draw a line from where you live and where you intend to go using your finger or a Q-tip/stick/popsicle stick, whatever you prefer. Don’t let your finger or writing device ever get dry while writing. When you’re done, let the map dry completely, then show your kids how to use it. Once they know, you can wipe it off, mark it again, let it dry and hang it on your wall. Only you and who you tell will ever know.)

Create passphrases for your family and friends to use.

These are pretty simple and easy to learn and practice. There is a specific question and a specific answer that goes with it. The question can be as odd as you want, and the answer is correct only in that it’s the one you’ve previously set up. Example (Fallout 4 fans will recognize this one):

Q: Do you have a Geiger counter?

A: Mine is in the shop.

This example is used in the game Fallout 4 as a way of recognizing members of a widespread group, but we’ve seen this one on television as well and it’s workable as long as it doesn’t stand out too much and isn’t used too often. A better use is to ascertain if the area is clear or there’s danger, or to find out if someone is in ‘the loop’. You can get as creative as you want with this but probably need to stay realistic. “Have you seen my dragon?” would probably garner some attention.

There are many ways to create signals to communicate private messages.

Light from some source is usually the first choice for a signal. Whether it’s the catalyst that makes the signal, or the actual signal itself, light does just about everything. Smoke signals caused by fire, torch lights, flashlights, signal lamps by sea vessels, signal lamps from towers, mirrors for reflecting the sun, stop lights, flashing signs, a lone zippo flame in the darkness… All of these signify something and therefore signal something. Without man-made power though we may have to depend on other types of signals, and if your goal is not to draw a whole lot of attention, chances are you won’t want to use most of the above.

That’s not to say that if you’re in an area that’s full of flashing lights you can’t use the same technique – by all means, flash those lights! But perhaps do what we’ve seen in the movies and flash them in some sort of learned code that your intended recipient will recognize.

Other signals can be used, like wearing a purple hat, carrying a pink purse with an umbrella over your arm, wearing a specific lapel pin or colored suit jacket – your imagination is the limit. Be creative and have some fun while learning and practicing these skills. One day they may be needed.

Develop your private communication plans now – before SHTF.

Just remember, everything I’ve mentioned here absolutely has to be set up and practiced in advance. That way it works without a hitch.

American poet, Henry W. Longfellow wrote “Paul Revere’s Ride”, a famous poem that referenced the secret signal arranged by Revere. This famous signal was meant to alert the patriots as to what route the British troops would use to advance to Concord, and it was agreed that one lantern meant the British chose the longer land route, and two lanterns meant they chose the shorter route by water, which would give the patriots less time to react. While that historical poem, as awesome as it sounds, was primarily fiction, those signal lanterns were indeed used just as the phrase says by members of a patriot spy group, known as the Sons of Liberty, as a back-up plan, and the back-up plan was carried out by over 30 militia members. And it worked.

That’s why we prep.

I’d like to encourage you to read the following and to look through the archives of The Organic Prepper, especially in regards to Jose Martinez and the recent collapse of Venezuela, and Selco Begovic, a survivor of the Balkan War in the 90’s. These people have already been where we’re most likely headed, and have written article upon article of very real events.

What do you think?

Do you or your family have a secret communication system in place? If not, do you plan to create one? Will you use the ideas provided in this article? Please share your thoughts and ideas in the comments.

About Sandra

Sandra is a published artist, photographer, fellow prepper, and animal advocate.

Wondering how to communicate sensitive information completely off the grid? Check out these old school spycraft skills and secret communication methods. | The Organic Prepper
Sandra D. Lane

About the Author

Sandra D. Lane

Sandra is a published artist, photographer, fellow prepper, and animal advocate.

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