Greetings Everyday Spy,
Welcome to your January 2021 Tradecraft exercise!
This month we are going to focus on a simple tradecraft tool you can use to keep yourself and your loved ones safe. It’s called a ‘Duress Word.’
Duress words are specific keywords that team members can use to discreetly signal a potential threat to one another.
A special category of codeword, ‘duress words’ are key in operations where you do not want the threat to become aware that they have been discovered. The duress word allows your team/family members to alert each other of danger in a way that does not get the attention of a threat/assailant. This non-alerting warning gives you and your team/family the chance to avoid, bypass, or intercept the threat actor before they take action.
Here is a short list of situations where a good ‘duress word’ can maximize safety for you, your friends, and your family:
- A female (spouse, daughter, friend, etc.) finds herself alone with a person she worries might assault her at a party, function, or event. She can call, text, or message using her duress word safely even if the assailant overhears the call or reads her messages.
- A child is uncomfortable being left alone with a doctor, teacher, or family member for any reason from bullying to inappropriate touching. They can say their duress word and signal you their discomfort without having to admit it out loud.
- A business/work associate suspects something dubious during a business meeting and wants to regroup with you in private. They can use their duress word to catch your attention and interrupt the meeting without the rest of the group knowing what has happened.
- A family member (kids, spouses, grandparents, etc.) feel nervous or threatened by a nearby stranger in a public venue. The duress word allows them to get your attention and communicate their suspicion without the stranger recognizing it.
- An employee is being threatened directly or sees criminal activity at your place of business but cannot say it openly. They can make a PA announcement, phone call, or text message that clearly calls the team’s attention to a clear and present danger.
Effective duress words must follow the U2 principle, meaning they must be ‘unique’ and ‘useful.’
Meeting the ‘unique’ standard can seem simple at first, but elite operators know otherwise. A ‘unique’ duress word is a word that stands out when it is said out-loud. It is uncommon in daily conversation and triggers your team to notice and pay attention when they hear it.
Unique words can be anything from silly words to foreign languages as long as they are able to ‘catch’ the attention of folks on your team when they are said out loud.
EXAMPLE: ‘Billy-goat’ is a unique word that is not commonly used and quick to catch someone’s attention. It meets the criteria for ‘unique.’
Meeting the ‘useful’ standard is even more important than the ‘unique’ standard – because a word that isn’t ‘useful’ is useless, no matter how ‘unique’ it is.
For a duress word to be useful, it must be both memorable and non-alerting. A word that cannot be remembered – either by the person using it or the person hearing it – is not going to help you when you need it. Similarly, a word that is so alarming that it catches the threat’s attention could actually make you even less safe! If a word is hard to remember or alerting to the threat, it fails the ‘useful’ standard.
EXAMPLE: ‘Paleontology’ is not a useful duress word – it has 6 syllables that make it both hard to say and hard to remember. It is so complicated that it is likely to be forgotten when you need it most. ‘DANGER’ is also not a good duress word – while it is easy to remember, it will immediately catch the threat’s attention and make the situation worse.
The ideal duress word must balance ‘unique’ with ‘useful’.
It must be uncommon enough not to be spoken accidently, catch the attention of your team/family immediately, be easy to remember, all while not alerting an outside threat that they have been discovered. Can you see the challenge in this task?
Here a few examples of real duress words that I’ve used with intel peers in the past.
Let these examples be a guide to creating your own duress words:
Sunburn; Elephant; Toothpick; Hot Date; SkyScraper; Fireball; Home Run; Full House; Guitar
Once you have a duress word, you can trigger it simply by using it whenever you find yourself in duress.
Perhaps your child is being followed by a bully on the way home. They can simply call you and say, ‘Dad, my sunburn itches today’ and you know to jump in the car and head out to meet them.
Maybe your business partner is sitting in a negotiation with you and they interrupt to say, ‘This deal is shaping up like a full house! Excuse me while I grab a fresh cup of coffee.’ That is your cue to step out a few minutes later and talk in private before going back to the negotiation table.
Your March Tradecraft Challenge:
Sit with a close friend or family member and create one duress word the two of you (at a minimum) can use to discreetly alert each other of possible danger.
Do not create more than one duress word. Remember the goal of signalling duress isn’t to explain the threat, only to identify that there is a possible threat. Creating more than one word risks violating the ‘useful’ standard and confusing your team/family.
Once you have picked your duress word, exercise the word in your everyday life at least one time per week for the next 4 weeks.
Coordinate the exercise with everyone involved in advance so the group does not mistake the exercise for a real duress situation. Go out to a restaurant, a coffee shop, a grocery store, or a walk in the park and have one person trigger the word. Once triggered, act exactly as you would if a real duress word had been triggered and take the appropriate action (regroup, reconnect, remove yourself from the situation, etc.).
After you complete at least 4 exercises, send me a note at Andy@EverydaySpy.com and tell me your duress word, where you exercised it, and any insights you gained from this tradecraft exercise.
Good luck, and of course…