The Alleged Spy Technique The CIA Uses At Starbucks

Characters like James Bond and Jason Bourne have given us the impression that the spy game is one of innovative gadgets and other cutting edge technology. But much of the secrecy that agencies like the CIA need in order to operate relies on hiding in plain sight. And as former CIA agent Amaryllis Fox told NPR in 2019, some of the best places to hide in plain sight are chain restaurants like McDonald's, Panera Bread, Panda Express, and other eateries found in every single shopping center in the United States. Speaking about her recently published book "Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA," Fox said that chain restaurants like this can be depended on to have standardized layouts, late hours, and other characteristics that make them beneficial to spy work.

And if you're looking for a standardized chain business available on every other street corner in town, you can't go wrong with Starbucks. Fox explained that she and other spies had an ingenious way of using Starbucks products to carry out secret missions.

Starbucks gift cards, a handy tool in any CIA spy kit

Fox detailed how CIA spies use Starbucks gift cards to signal each other for surreptitious meetings: "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."

Although Fox liked and employed this spy technique regularly during her time in the CIA, others weren't so keen on the new generation's tech. Some of the old fogies from the Cold War days preferred those old school chalk marks and lowered blinds over the newfangled thingamajigs the young whippersnappers use today. "We learn quickly which Cold War veterans demand chalk marks from their students and which modern warriors prefer silicon and Wi-Fi," she said. So next time you stop in for your pumpkin spice latte, take a look around. You just might be surrounded by spies.