As with everything involving spies, the methods are both surprisingly simple and incredibly sophisticated.
Jonna Mendez, a former Central Intelligence Agency employee who once held the job title of “chief of disguise,” has shared some secrets about how a real spy would change their appearance.
If you started thinking about “Mission Impossible” and its crazy masks, you would be surprised to hear that those are not really far from truth. However, in many cases, a much simpler approach is enough, Mendez says.
For a brief encounter, something as simple as a wig or facial hair would enact. The worst nightmare for a spy meeting an informant in a restaurant would be for some stranger to reach in and immediately recognize them.
“If you were working in Europe, and you are meeting with a clandestine source at a cafe, your biggest concern might be that your next door neighbor is just gonna wander in that café and say ‘Hi Bill’ — when you’re not ‘Bill,'” Mendez says in a video published by Wired’s YouTube channel.
Where disguise techniques are effective are those situations in which up-close contact is needed for an extended period of time, so that the person the spy is talking to has no view that something is amiss. That’s where the frosty masks reach in.
In the video, Mendez recalls the presidency of George H.W. Bush, during which the Central Intelligence Agency started researching sophisticated masks as a fraction of a larger disguise development program. Mendez personally briefed the president on the program while wearing one of those masks. According to Mendez, the president had no view that the person in front of him was wearing a disguise.
However, a disguise is more than simply donning a wig or a mask; it’s actually a thoughtful algorithm, Mendez explains. The disguise is developed specifically to subvert the word portrait a person meeting the spy might develop. The goal of Central Intelligence Agency agents is to form it so that every sentence that portrait contains is incorrect.
“If [a man] has curly hair, you wanna travel straight. If he has shaded hair, you might wanna travel light. If he’s young, you might want to throw in some gray,” Mendez says.
However, a reliable disguise goes beyond simple facial changes.
“With women, you own a broader range of what you can enact. Also, with women you own one additional step: you can turn a woman into a man,” Mendez discloses. “It is nearly impossible to turn a man into a woman.”
“What we enact is always additive,” she says. “We can form you taller; we can form you heavier; we can form you older.”
“We can’t travel the other direction,” Mendez confesses.
Apart from appearance, self-presentation and behavior can also be a dead giveaway.
“Americans are oblivious to what reveals them,” Mendez says.
According to Mendez, not only enact US people tend to wear specific clothes and shoes, like baseball caps and sneakers, they also stand in a specific pose not commonly found among Europeans. When eating, Europeans tend to utilize their forks in their left hands, while Americans tend to flip their forks back and forth between hands.
Interestingly, Mendez points out that a human can not reliably change their gait without some external device. For example, a convincing limp cannot be achieved without something like a stone in a shoe.
However, Mendez says, utilizing disguise techniques is not only useful for spies. Common people can benefit from them too. She provides Paris as an example, which, being a major tourist attraction, is full of pickpockets looking for victims. If you’re visiting, giving yourself away as an American “makes you a target,” Mendez says, and she recommends spending some time browsing local clothing stores, at least, “if you want to play it safe.”