When most of us think about spies, it’s probably suave, death-defying agents like James Bond or Ethan Hunt that first spring to mind, along with futuristic gadgets like x-ray glasses and anti-gravity gloves.
But the reality is often very different, and a lot more mundane, as former CIA agents have revealed in various books and TV series sharing some of the tricks of the trade with us mere normal civilians.
As it turns out, rather than spending their time holed up in off-the-grid safehouses trying not to get shot at, many spies spend much of their time living – or at least pretending to live – a very normal life, and that includes the most normal of normal activities: going to Starbucks.
However, the coffee run of a spy comes with a twist, as one former CIA agent explained in their book Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA. As ex-agent Amaryllis Fox reveals, rather than simply heading there each day to pick up a caramel latte, Starbucks was used as a way for handlers to communicate with their agents.
Fox explained of one of her former instructors: ‘He gives one [gift card] to each of his assets and tells them, ‘If you need to see me, just 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.’
It’s kind of a genius move if you think about it, with Starbucks rivalled only by McDonald’s in its ubiquity across the world. ‘[It] saves him having to drive past a whole slew of different physical signal sites each day… and the card numbers aren’t tied to identities, so the whole thing is pretty secure,’ she adds.
Fox’s anecdote was recently featured on the podcast No Such Thing As A Fish alongside a whole bunch of other spy facts, including the existence of a training centre that taught spy trainees how to crash a car, and the fact that US Cold War spies would hide supplies for their agents inside dead animals.