Author: Sean Hartnett
Review date: 30/11/2023
No of pages: 178
Publisher: Merrion Press
Year of publication: 25/03/2019
For a book with such a title and by a man who works in TCSM (technical counter-surveillance measures), besides the usual matter of what the book says, we have to ask; why does the author want to be so revealing; doesn’t he want to have clients any more?!
Sean Hartnett answers this in several ways; at the very start, he says that some names and places have been changed. Most obviously, at the very end the author writes: “When I sat down to write this book, I’ll admit there was some venom behind it, but not now. For me it has been a very therapeutic process. It has released some of the regret and sense of failure I had been experiencing since the crash.” As for the ‘crash’, it’s explained in the book’s sub-title; ‘Spooks, Secrets and counter-espionage during the Celtic Tiger’. As Ireland well knows from living through it, the boom of the 2000s came to an end with bank failures and years of painful austerity. Hartnett, as someone who served corporates, suffered too, like so many; finding his invoices not paid and work drying up. Other work – such as a security system for a new prison – never happened because the Irish government, too, had to re-trench. Hence the ‘venom’ about what halfway through he calls ‘epidemic levels’ of corruption; ‘and even at the time of writing this book  scandals are still surfacing that show how far greed and ineptitude reached into Irish society’.
Partly, Hartnett has written about confidential clients because Ireland wants to settle scores with them, notably the Anglo Irish Bank; and RBS. Few people will be on the banks’ side after Hartnett has revealed their paranoia. Other aspects of Hartnett’s work are in the public domain, albeit it patchily, such as doing counter-surveillance for international rugby union teams, each seeking to gain any advantage over teams they are about to play, and to deny any sliver of news to competitors. He writes: “I suppose a fair question to ask is this: is covert surveillance a real threat in sport? The simple answer is a resounding yes.” This chapter in the book – Hartnett’s work for the Irish rugby union body the IRFU, was featured last week in The Guardian.
More of purely Irish interest will be what Hartnett found inside Irish ‘semi-state’ (such as utility) sites; and the security advice he gave to a serious drugs trade criminal who feared for his life (and was indeed assassinated in a pub). That Harnett, who served in the British Army and saw the proverbial world and wrote a book about those years (Charlie One), has a (larger) British audience in mind might explain the lengthy background paragraphs that he tends to use, to introduce new characters or companies with. They may be unnecessary for Irish readers, and British readers, notoriously indifferent to details in Ireland, may well skip over them. Otherwise, like any first-person memoir, the writing is in an easy and readable style, and has plenty to draw the general or security practitioner reader.
Security and TCSM specialists may feel uneasy that Hartnett is giving confidentialities; particularly in chapter three, ‘Tricks and tools of the trade’. In fairness, you could equally say that Hartnett is informing his clients about what to look for in a TCSM service – for instance, how to beware of ‘magicians’ (amateurs who give a poor service with cheap kit, waving it around like a wand, hence the nickname).
Among the wise pieces of advice, to his credit Hartnett keeps stressing that while his TCSM did pick up listening devices in corporates, general information security and good practice is as necessary. The threats may come from insiders; leaks to the press; because it’s simpler for a corrupted or disgruntled staffer to email minutes of a meeting to someone, than the ‘enemy’ planting a ‘bug’ that takes time and effort to insert.
As Hartnett says, ‘information is currency’, and he is careful at the very end to point out that he has many more secrets – having worked in a world of them. He has given readers insight into the TSCM work, and the sorts of people hiring him, and what for. A wealthy man hires Hartnett to do a security review at his rural property; Hartnett agrees to try to break in and steal a work of art, and succeeds. Hartnett does ethical penetration testing and finds hard to believe laxness – anti-climb fencing installed the wrong way round, so that they actually would help a climber; and two company credit cards in a drawer, each with the PIN number written on a Post-it note stuck to the back.
Around pages 128 and 129 at an Irish semi-state firm Hartnett details slack workers thanks to strong unions and how a new security system is resisted because workers fear it’ll be used against them for time and attendance purposes (which does make you wonder, what they had to hide). At an unnamed accountancy firm, Harnett as a sub-contractor swabs toilets, testing for drugs in the workplace, and finds regular cocaine use.
This book might well be seen in tandem with The Rules of Security by Paul Martin published in May by OUP. While Martin erred on the side of discretion, Hartnett may have erred on the side of incaution. Hartnett at least airs what really goes on between a contractor and client (and he does get offered bribes) and the sorts of real-world problems for security managers. Whatever the motive for Hartnett’s writing, that he’s been so frank is of use to readers doing security. While plainly taking pride in his tools and his talents – building a listening device into a pen to deadline, for instance – to his credit he doesn’t exaggerate what he and his kind can achieve.
He ends one chapter: “I’m often asked what the best security system is, and my answer is always the same: while electronic security systems are useful, they should only be used as an enhancement for strong physical security. Good locks on your doors and windows, along with a dog, will serve you much better than an electronic security system on its own. With patience, anything can be achieved and there is no such thing as a private collection or an impregnable premises, at least not while the likes of me are around!”