And the CIA uses Starbucks gift cards for communication.

By Mike Pomranz
Updated October 17, 2019
Philip Lee Harvey/Getty Images

One of the keys to being a good spy is not letting people know you're a spy. Because of this, it's possible that everyone around you is a good spy. Granted, unless you are an international arms dealer, this scenario is unlikely. Still, next time you're at a restaurant, pay close attention: Everyone next to you might be a spy. Especially at Starbucks.

In an article for NPR's The Salt, Nina Martyris looked at the importance of restaurants to professional spies. Her findings: They're very important. "Restaurants and cafes are in many ways the lifeblood of espionage," explained Amaryllis Fox, who recently published her memoir, Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA. "Restaurants offer the opportunity to meet the people we most seek… Sometimes those meetings are accidental. Mostly, they are planned to look accidental."

Lindsay Moran, who wrote a similar memoir—2005's Blowing My Cover: My Life as a CIA Spy—provided some key details. "During the 'developmental' stage of recruiting a foreign agent, you are typically meeting him or her for a meal or drink," she told NPR. "You want a place where you're unlikely to be seen by known associates of the target, so you pick an out-of-the-way restaurant not near his place of work. You might also choose a time of day when the place is relatively empty and you will have pre-cased the place to pick the best location within the restaurant. Back exits are always good."

Certain to add to your paranoia, Fox also said that big chains like McDonald's, Panera Bread, and Panda Express make for good meet-up spots because the layouts are recognizable and they are open late. She even tells a story about how a CIA instructor taught how to use Starbucks gift cards as a communication tool. "He gives one 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 cybercafe computer each day, and if the balance on one is depleted, he knows he's got a meeting," she said. "The card numbers aren't tied to identities, so the whole thing is pretty secure."

Okay, so to recap: If you're eating during weird hours at an out-of-the-way restaurant, everyone else there is a spy. Check. And if you see someone using a Starbucks gift card, they are definitely with the CIA. Check. Oh, and if someone tries to accidentally meet you at a restaurant, throw up your arms and say, "I am not committing espionage!" Check. Then quickly leave—just not out a back exit. That would be suspicious. You don't want everyone to think you're a spy. And saying "I am not committing espionage" is exactly what a spy would say!