The Ugly Flip-Sides of ‘Op-sec’
Many preppers love to boast about their Opsec.
Sometimes they capitalize the term to give it (and them) even more (self)importance. They particularly love to boast about how no-one for many miles around knows of their retreat location and their presence there.
Some people simultaneously boast of the resilience of their retreat and then turn around and refuse to disclose even the state it is located within. Why? What are they scared of, with such a self-described resilient retreat to start with?
Excuse me if I feel a bit like vomiting when I see people quoting military terms but not necessarily knowing what they really mean and misapplying them, or using them in the wrong context, or as a ‘magic spell’ invocation to give them powers of invincibility – as if merely saying the term is all they need to do.
Let’s think about just four implications of someone who obsessively hides their retreat away. None of them are positive. Oh – and we’re not even going to number the most important consideration of all – in this day and age, no-one is truly hidden away.
Everyone can be found, and every dwelling leaves fingerprints and footprints in many different public records, private company work records, aerial photos, and so on.
Even if you’re not found by people deliberately searching you out, it is reasonable to expect a lot more people will be roaming around the currently empty woods in a Level 3 situation, and Murphy’s Law mandates that they’ll accidentally discover you. See our earlier article ‘Is it Reasonable to Expect Your Retreat Will Not be Found‘ for more discussion on this point.
1. The Need to Hide Away Implies (or Creates) Vulnerabilities
If you have a strong secure retreat and true ‘op sec’ (which doesn’t mean operations secrecy, it means operations security – an important difference of meaning) then you do not need to be so secretive.
Sure, it is never appropriate to brag about things, and to make your retreat a tasty tempting target for all and sundry. But if you need to be totally hidden away, that implies your retreat is otherwise vulnerable, and therefore, was/is probably a bad choice to start with.
If you start building an expectation, an assumption, and before too long, a reliance on no-one ever finding you, then you’re basing your survival on a terrible risk, and on something you have much less control over than you might think. Every day you are playing Russian Roulette against the odds of being discovered.
It is important to understand where and when the constraints of Op-sec should apply. Disclosing that you live ‘over there’ need not be a breach of Opsec. Revealing the access code to the main gate would be.
You also need to weigh the pros and cons of keeping an ultra low profile. Are the trade-offs acceptable? For example, see the next point.
2. If No-one Knows About You, Who Will Help You
If you’re secretly squirreled away somewhere miles from anywhere, what happens when you inevitably need help? Best case scenario, bringing in someone or some people to help with whatever your emergency is will destroy whatever secrecy your retreat might have formerly had. Worst case scenario is you’ll be on your own, without any support and without any community goodwill.
And if the nearby community does discover you, they’ll not see you as a friendly ‘one of us’ – you’ll be an outsider and not entitled to any special treatment. See our article about becoming part of the solution, not part of the problem, after the collapse of society.
3. Do You Still Have a Defensive Posture
If your plan revolves around no-one finding your retreat’s location, do you still maintain a defensive posture for the inevitable time when someone does?
Do you still have sentries (or at least some form of remote sensing/monitoring) 24/7? Did you make your retreat’s exterior walls bullet-resistant and fire-proof? Or have you allowed your hope that no-one knows where you are lull you into a false sense of security?
This consideration points out one of the weaknesses of the entire opsec advocacy. You can’t plan your retreat’s security based on the hope that it will never be found. You must assume it will be found, and by adversaries, and have a plan to respond to that situation when it inevitably (and probably repeatedly) occurs.
So if you are planning for discovery, why delay it? Why not have the discovery on your terms, rather than on the terms of unknown others?
4. Who Are Your Neighbors
As part of creating your own secretive retreat, have you been able to spy on and identify and analyze all your neighbors? If you’re keeping a very low profile yourself, that might be difficult.
For all you know, the next valley over might be the home of a group of domestic Muslim terrorists, or white supremacists, or an outlaw gang. For that matter, your own valley might also be home to an illegal drug factory or growing operation.
It is difficult to thoroughly identify your neighbors without revealing yourself, and remember also that the same things you are doing to identify your neighbors are techniques that might be done, and possibly to an even more sophisticated level, by your neighbors to you. Or, for that matter, by federal agencies, who seem to be more than a little interested in secretive groups of people in the American redoubt states. It is sad but true that the things that encourage us – lawful good ordinary citizens – to move to American redoubt locations also encourage bad people to move there, too. And it is even sadder, but still true, that some of the values we treasure are misperceived by some as being anti-American, whereas they are in fact totally pro-American.
It seems only fair to acknowledge that if you believe you have managed to obscure your own retreat, then it is possible you could be immediately adjacent to someone else who has similarly disguised their retreat, too. And while your own motivation for obscuring your retreat is positive and good, theirs may not be quite so positive.
Of course, if you believe you have absolutely uncovered details about all your regional neighbors, isn’t it incredibly myopic of you to simultaneously believe that you’ve managed to simultaneously avoid the prying eyes of other folk around you?
Plus, wouldn’t you rather be friends with your neighbors, so you can call on them for help if ever needed, plus enjoy a better life in normal times – socializing with them, occasionally swapping or sharing or lending things, and so on?
Fighting Against the Inevitable
Here’s an interesting comparison. It seems that no matter how convoluted an approach our schools and other self-appointed moral leaders adopt, teenagers find out about sex and then experiment with it. No amount of abstinence advocacy seems to have much effect; indeed one study showed that girls who joined a group pledging to remains virgins until marriage ended up with higher out-of-wedlock pregnancy rates than did other ‘normal’ girls. You can make contraceptives freely available or withhold them, you can educate teens about every aspect of relationships and physical relations, adopting any type of advocacy perspective, and still teenagers have sex and still teenagers get pregnant.
Our point, in case you are wondering, is that opsec, particularly in a civilian and less controlled environment such as you would be planning with your retreat, is very limited and not very controllable in nature.
It isn’t a case of if your opsec will be punctured and destroyed, it is a case of when.
Just like the teenagers, somehow ‘the truth will out’ – through any one of many dozens of different vectors – and all of a sudden, your secret will be revealed for all to see. Complete opsec is unachievable to start with, just like keeping all teenagers chaste.
Much better, we suggest, to accept this reality, and to instead manage the release of selected information about yourselves. Some studies suggest that households that take a matter-of-fact approach to sex end up with teenagers in turn adopting a more restrained view of the topic, rather than being consumed with curiosity about an apparently special super secretive aspect of being an adult. It is the same with alcohol – families that treat alcohol as a functional normal part of their world have fewer binge drinking teenagers and alcoholics.
So too can it be the same with your retreat. If you act casually about who you are, and where your retreat is and why, then the locals will accept it in the same low-key ordinary way you present it.
A key part of opsec is not eliminating all information flowing outside of your operation. It is instead controlling and shaping the information release, and adopting appropriate internal measures to anticipate the outcomes of the information that has been released.
You don’t need to place a public notice in the local newspaper boasting of your new retreat and all the stores you’ve stockpiled, of course. But you can tell people where you live, and if you’re not there permanently, you can describe it as a vacation home, a hunting/fishing lodge, or whatever else you like. This changes you from being a subject of speculation and gossip, and instead you become a known normal quantity, and no longer worthy of ongoing discussion.
If you do succeed in clamping down on the release of all information, that actually becomes significant. As a comparison, these days, one of the ways to find a submarine in the ocean is to look for an area of unexpected silence – the most sophisticated stealthy submarines now create areas not of detectable noise, but of unusual silence. It is the same with your retreat – if someone is checking off property on a map saying ‘Oh yes, this lot belong to Bill Smith, that lot is forest land, John Jones grows crops here’ then they come to your lot and say ‘Hey, what’s going on here? We better go see.’
Even some of the least sophisticated counties have adopted very complete and detailed GISs – geographical information systems that plot every square inch of land in their county, showing who owns it, recording the location of easements, utilities, wells, rivers, streams, lakes, mines, septic systems, buildings, and all manner of other details. Sometimes this is even publicly accessible online. It is also used, perhaps with greater detail revealed, by emergency services, by county valuers and assessors, health inspectors, building inspectors, and so on through a huge long list of departments and bureaucracies.
Here is an example of one such database – it covers every property in the entire state of Montana.
If your retreat isn’t already captured in your county’s GIS, it is only a matter of time before it will be, because the state and county agencies revisit and re-inspect properties to update their records on an occasional basis. You might have managed to create your retreat on land the county thought to be undeveloped forest, but sooner or later, they’ll discover your presence, and then you’ll find yourself in an embarrassing situation – un-permitted improvements, non-standard construction, back taxes, penalties, and you’ll transition from being obscure to being very visible. Maybe you are already on several different federal GIS databases (not just police and security ones).
It is much better to take control of these matters up-front, and to manage the release of information. As we said before, you don’t necessarily need to fully share all information about everything, but you need to disclose enough to explain your presence and to make it seem ordinary and normal.
Right from the minute you buy your retreat land from someone, you are starting to create a paper trail and record of your presence. Don’t fight it. Accept it and take the initiative, positively creating the impression you wish to convey in the local community.
The best opsec is not to adopt an unrealistic attempt to hide away from everyone, always. It is instead a managed release of information on your terms to neutralize potentially harmful speculation and to replace unknowns and curiosity with the impression of whatever semi-normal concept you wish to convey.