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Dead Drop

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Suppose you have something that you really need to get to another person without other people knowing—maybe you're a spy with important information, maybe you're a police informant with a piece of incriminating evidence, maybe you're a government agent paying off an asset in foreign territory. Your phone might be tapped, you can't leave the country, and you absolutely cannot walk up to the authorities' door, suitcase in hand. What do you do?

A "dead drop" is one option. The gist of it is that there is a location, typically Hidden in Plain Sight, where one person can leave a message (or money, or just about anything that can fit in the container), then leave. Later on, someone else goes to the location and retrieves whatever was left at the drop. This allows for information or items to be exchanged without public interaction between the participants, which helps with Plausible Deniability: If the people in question never publicly (or even privately) associate, it's harder to prove any sort of connection between them.

The obvious risk is that someone can (inadvertently or otherwise) find the message. In fiction, if the protagonist happens to find a dead drop that isn't meant for them, the party that set up the drop will often try to do one of two things: Welcome them into the fold or try to eliminate them. Compare Lost Property Live Drop.


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    Fan Fiction 
  • What the Cat Dragged In: In the epilogue of this Miraculous Ladybug crossover, once the Avengers decide (quite reluctantly) that Superman Stays Out of Gotham (with them being "Superman" and Paris being "Gotham"), one of the things Black Widow recommends Ladybug and Chat Noir to do before she leaves is set up one of these for them to communicate between each other in an emergency. A Time Skip to a few days later shows that they placed the dead drop somewhere in the rooftops of Paris.

  • Accident. The client pays off the crew of professional killers by leaving a packet of money in the backseat of an unlocked car in a multilevel garage, with the bay number sent to him by text.
  • Children of Men: Because they're officially a terrorist movement wanted by the government, the Fishes can't contact Theo through normal channels after their first meeting; so, Luke gives Theo a missing poster of a lost dog and tells him to pin it to the notice board at Camden tube station if he ever decides to accept their offer. When he finally does, Theo's left in the dark up until a woman approaches him at the dog track with the poster and directs him outside. Not only does the woman actually own the "lost" dog, but this is just a pretext to get Theo onto a bus where he can meet up with Julian and Luke for the mission.
  • In Hackers, after the hackers get evidence on the Salami Slicing plot by the Big Bad, the FBI arrest them and start hauling them away to the local branch office. As they pass, Crash Override tosses the disk into a trash bin near the exit. As they are being putting into the police cars, he sees Cereal Killer standing with a group of onlookers. Crash starts yelling, "They're trashing our rights!. They're trashing the flow of data! Hack The Planet!" Cereal yells back, "Hack The Planet!" and later finds the disk, and takes it to be exposed.
    • Earlier in the movie, another disk gets stuck to a condom machine in a men's room, with this location communicated to others as "where I left that thing that time". Which makes the ensuing scene of the very-female Acid Burn (Angelina Jolie) walking into the men's room and using the condom machine hilarious (and titillating for the guys in there).
  • In The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), the people who actually carry out the bank robbery, who are never allowed to see the mastermind's face, drop the stolen money off in a trash container at Cambridge Cemetery.
  • In the Fritz Lang spy movie Ministry of Fear (1944), the Allied plans for the invasion of occupied Europe have been microfilmed by Nazi spies and hidden in a cake being raffled at a village fair. The next chain in the spy ring was supposed to 'win' the cake and take it with him, but by a fluke the protagonist gets it instead, setting off the plot. There's a Brick Joke at the end of the movie when the protagonist reacts in alarm when his Love Interest starts discussing their wedding preparations, which of course would include a cake...
  • Operation Finale. The Mossad team communicate with their leader in a cafe, with him putting a message in a teapot, which is then carried by the waiter to another table where it's removed by the agent.
  • Used to communicate through time in Tenet. The antagonist Andrei Sator buries a Time Capsule, usually in a radioactive area that people will stay away from for centuries, and leaves instructions on its location where his sponsors in the future can read it. He then has the capsule dug up to retrieve the contents—gold, weaponry or instructions that have been sent back in time. Though from his point-of-view the burial and retrieval would seem almost instantaneous. Sator doesn't worry about the risk of radiation poisoning because he's dying anyway.

  • In Next Breed of Thief, this is the typical communication method between Elsha and Fireboy—the usual implementation is a false rock placed along a jogging route, though Fireboy also uses a potted plant.
  • Discussed and averted in The Cardinal of the Kremlin: The chain of handoffs between "Cardinal"—a high ranking Soviet official who provides intelligence to the US—and the CIA's Chief of Station in Moscow has no dead drops. It's acknowledged that this bears the risk that the KGB could "pull the thread" by working their way back through the handoffs, but the information that Cardinal provides is too sensitive to be left in a dead drop.
  • John le Carré's spy thrillers routinely detail how dead drops are conducted, as well as "color coding" to identify the contact and whether or not it's safe to make the drop / pick-up. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy has a dead drop occur on a ferry boat, with a yellow thumbtack acting as the "it's on" signal.
  • In the book Cauldron of Ghosts, Victor Cachat re-establishes contact with seccy allies from the previous novel by spending a day checking assorted dead drops, then leaving a return message at one of them.
  • In Aquarium, it is described that for most spies under diplomatic cover, all their work consists of either checking and filling Dead Drops, or driving around so that the police won't be able to pinpoint these. Actual contacts with agents are to be made as few as possible.
  • The Fourth Protocol. A British politician suspected of stealing secrets makes his way across London to visit an ice cream store. The MI-5 Watchers are forced to follow every delivery to see who he's making contact with. One of the recipients is a diplomat in the South African embassy, who later makes a wrong number call to the ice cream store. The protagonist has a computer expert work out the odds of this happening by coincidence, which turn out to be astronomical. In the movie a pizzeria is used, and Michael Caine's character gets suspicious when the manager personally hands a pizza box to the man who turns out to be the South African diplomat.
    • Several of Frederick Forsyth's other books also had the characters utilizing dead drops.

    Live-Action TV 
  • A dead drop is often how Mission: Impossible agent Jim Phelps received the tape recorder and photographs that detailed his newest mission. Drop points have included a cathedral, a public fountain and a museum.
  • In the TV movie Family of Spies: The Walker Spy Ring, John Walker's ex-wife tips off the FBI that her husband is selling naval secrets to the KGB. They don't believe her at first because she appears to be motivated by revenge, but analysts report that her description of the signals used to inform that a dead drop has been filled match those techniques used by the KGB.
  • The Equalizer: In one episode, an innocent bystander is mistaken for the next link in a courier line of spies. A package is dropped off to the doorman of his apartment (the real courier). When someone turns up to murder the doorman and steal the package, he hastily scribbles an address on it to make it look like normal mail. Unfortunately, the killer is not fooled and steals the package, assuming that the address is for the next link in the chain which he's trying to shut down.
  • Stargate SG-1: After the events "Touchstone," a group of rogue NID agents are unable to return to Earth, but they are able to send some pieces of alien tech they have found back to Earth by depositing the tech at a dead drop for their mole Colonel Makepeace, leader of SG-3 to pick up and deliver to the NID.
  • At the start of the third season of Battlestar Galactica (2003), the resistance are receiving information from a source inside the Cylon government leaving information inside a filing cabinet and a flipping a nearby dog bowl over to indicate a delivery has been made. Tyrol, who collects the information, doesn't know who's making the deliveries and explains that it's safer for everyone that way. The audience quickly learns that it's Gaeta, President Baltar's aide, who's been making the drops. Once the Cylon occupation has been dealt with, Gaeta reveals he was the source by describing the drop method in front of Tyrol, information that saves him from being executed as one of Les Collaborateurs.
  • Le Bureau des Légendes: A physical dead drop is used when spying on hackers, who presumably would be able to uncover any virtual communication.
  • Cowboy Bebop (2021): Spike reveals that he's Not Quite Dead to his former friend Ana, and asks her to find out if his former enemy Vicious also knows he's alive. It's too dangerous for them to meet again, so in a later episode Spike makes contact with a sushi vendor working as Ana's cut-out with: "I hear the sake on Mars is only good when it rains." The vendor hands him chopsticks with the paper wrapper bearing a message: VICIOUS KNOWS.
  • The Professionals. In "Servant With Two Masters", Bodie and Doyle are jogging through a cemetery, see a man in a bowler hat hanging around and start making spy jokes. (Turns out he's actually there to make contact with them).
    Bodie: You think that guy is making a drop or a pickup?
    Doyle: Ze microfilm is under ze first headstone on the left!
  • Person of Interest: Radical privacy group Vigilance are understandably paranoid about government surveillance, so this is one of the techiques they use to operate below the radar in a world where Big Brother Is Watching You for real. In "Mors praematura", Reese and Finch find an apparently empty lockup with a message written on the wall in infrared paint. Unfortunately it's also rigged with gasoline sprayers and an igniter, to burn the evidence and anyone else who comes poking around.
  • Breaking Bad occasionally showed these being used as part of drug smuggling or payment for such, complete with an explanation of what they are. For example, Mike and Jesse gradually develop an Odd Friendship in Season 4 over the course of visiting multiple dead drops in each day and being forced to spend long stretches of time together. In another case Mike screws with a DEA observer by apparently using a playground trash can as a dead drop, conspicuously leaving something near it just before leaving the playground with his beloved granddaughter. When the observer sees nobody coming to pick up whatever Mike put there, he goes to see what it was... and finds a note that simply reads "Fuck you".

    Video Games 
  • A system of dead drops is used by the Dark Brotherhood in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion to assign new assassination contracts and to transfer payments to you. One quarter of the way through this part of the quest line, however, it is hijacked by a traitor and you are instead sent to assassinate the entire Brotherhood leadership. You’re none the wiser until you are approached by Lucien Lechance, the agent who recruited you, after you kill the Listener.
  • In PAYDAY 2, players can request dead drops of supplies during heists to aid them. With the introduction of the Dentist, it's now possible to strategically place the drops in different locations on some heists.
  • In Fallout 4, dead drops are how members of The Railroad, a group of rebels who help Synths escape The Institute and get new lives, communicate and get their assignments. In their case, it's not so much for plausible deniability (since the wasteland of the Commonwealth has no real ruling government) but survival. The Institute can teleport an army of Synths, or worse, Coursers, directly to The Railroad's hideouts the instant they know where they are. Thus The Railroad has to be as secretive as possible at all times.
  • In the Infamous games, dead drops are used as a source of background information not normally available to help the player understand the full scope of various situations.
  • In one mission in Thief II: The Metal Age, you follow a Pagan sympathizer from the City Watch to the edge of a plaza where she drops a letter to her Pagan contact. You then have to read that letter discreetly, then put it back so the contact in question can pick it up, and then you have to follow that contact.

    Western Animation 
  • The Young Justice (2010) series has the Team (and sometimes, their Justice League mentors) use dead drops when they're operating under plausible deniability ops to insert teams or their gear when they can't do things overtly.

    Real Life 
  • This is an actual method used by spies in the real world. Both Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen, who were in the CIA and FBI respectively, used dead drops to communicate with their KGB handlers.
  • For a non-espionage version, Aram Bartholl started a series of USB dead drops as an art project for the public to use.
  • Russian intelligence literally turn over stones in their search for spies. The fun part? It's entirely justified.
  • The CIA invented a hollow spike that could be pushed into the ground and used as a container for a dead drop. On one occasion a spike was retrieved and brought back to the United States, only to set off a Geiger counter. Turns out the KGB had found it and contaminated the spike with a lethal dose of radiation.