The CIA at Starbucks

How's this for a trick? Also

Housekeeping: I admit, I’ve had a hard time getting back into “real work mode” after almost two weeks of travel and holidays. Nice feeling, though. I think we’ll be back on track after the weekend.

One thing I’m on the fence about: the weekly comment threads (like this one and this one).

Do we keep doing them? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Either send me an email, or vote below with one click:


I often write at Starbucks. Heck, I wrote almost an entire book in a Starbucks.

It's funny when you look around and imagine what some of the other people are doing there.

Some are probably working remotely. Others are freelancing or job-searching.

Occasionally you'll see people on an especially uncreative first date. Of course, there are some just hanging out and drinking coffee.

Also, apparently, you might find people spying for the CIA.

I learned this recently after reading the account of former CIA spy Amaryllis Fox, who wrote a book about her time with the agency: Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA.

Fox served in the clandestine service "from 2003 to 2010" and "deployed to 16 countries to infiltrate terrorist networks in the post-Sept. 11 world," according to a summary on NPR.

She revealed that when she went through training, a CIA instructor taught her a pretty cool trick, 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, please finish this article, and then delay whatever else you had planned for today or this evening. You’ve found your next binge-watch.)

Besides the Starbucks gift card idea, it seems like Fox spent a lot of time in the CIA meeting with her assets in cafes.

Cafes and restaurants are “the lifeblood of espionage," she writes, adding: "Mostly, [the meetings] are planned to look accidental."

Other advice:

  • Sit with your back to the wall,

  • Never use your real name (Seems obvious, but I’ll bet this advice is inspired by a CIA story about a spy who actually did use his real name),

  • Scout everything out ahead of time (so you know where the security cameras and emergency exits are), and

  • Most of all: Skip the trendy, independent venues, and meet your sources at chain restaurants when possible.

“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, via NPR.

7 other things worth a click

  1. A top Google executive who left the company this year didn’t sign an NDA. Now he’s writing about why . (Medium)

  2. The Trump administration said it’s banning the sale of most flavored e-cigarette cartridges, but exempting some flavors and devices sold in vape shops. (New York Times)

  3. U-Haul says it won’t hire smokers in 21 states. (News-Observer)

  4. Marc Benioff reveals the domain name he gave to Steve Jobs as a gift. (Techcrunch)

  5. Why “belonging” is becoming a new corporate buzzword (supposedly replacing “diversity” and “inclusion”). (The Washington Post)

  6. Twitter’s big bet on topics and lists is just getting started (Fast Company)

  7. California now requires big companies to let you opt out of them selling your private data, but they don’t have to make the process easy. So, here’s a continually updated list of links to big company websites with the information you need. (CAPrivacy, via Github)

Ideas and feedback actively solicited. I wrote about this CIA Starbucks trick at Inc, but it’s probably new to you, right?

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