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What is a Dead Drop?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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A dead drop or dead letterbox is a location which two people can use to pass off information without ever meeting in person. A classic dead drop is a commonplace public location where comings and goings would not be observed, with information being hidden in things like trash cans, toilet tanks, holes in tree trunks, and so forth. The espionage community has also developed more sophisticated dead drop systems which rely heavily on technology, theoretically making them more challenging to identify.

There are a number of advantages to using a dead drop, which explains why dead drops have been used for centuries by people who want to pass information quietly and efficiently between each other. One major advantage to using a public dead drop instead of meeting to exchange information is that the users of the dead drop can minimize the appearance of suspicious activity. For example, taking a walk in a park and sitting on a bench now and then is a perfectly normal activity which might not arouse much suspicion, whereas ducking into a bush and talking with someone could be perceived as unusual.

Dead drops can also be used to protect the members of an espionage group. For example, two cells could pass information through a dead drop without ever meeting each other, thus ensuring that if members of either cell are captured, they cannot disclose the identity of the members of the other cell. Users of the dead drop can also visit at any time, thus avoiding a regular schedule which could be noted by observers.

When people leave information in a dead drop, they often leave signals in the area to alert the person they are communicating with to the fact that there is something in the dead drop. These signals can take the form of chalk marks, strategically placed rocks, and other subtle changes in the environment which would be difficult for outside observers to interpret. Clever agents also change their signals and dead drop locations periodically, to avoid the creation of a pattern which could be used to identify them.

The modern dead drop tends to be much more sophisticated than a knothole in a tree. Many dead drops today are entirely electronic, creating a situation where no one needs to visit a physical site. For example, agents might use a wireless router as a dead drop, encoding messages which can be picked up by users who know how to access them.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By FitzMaurice — On Jan 16, 2011

Sometimes a dead drop is an encrypted or difficult to navigate website on the internet. With the use of a connected world, dead drops no longer have to be physical, but can take on various obscure technological forms and codes.

By GigaGold — On Jan 13, 2011

Dead drops are probably aptly titled, because if a person was unaware of it, they could inadvertently spell their own doom by looking at the contents in such a drop and be classified as a threat or an enemy spy. This can have dire consequences, and therefore, it is helpful and necessary for spies to find dead drops that are as out of the way and inaccessible as they can make them.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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