Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Private Investigator Basics: Surveillance

Surveillance is the art of watching someone, someplace, or some object in order to document and identify any contact, activities and whereabouts. Surveillance is conducted to prevent a crime, to obtain evidence of a crime, to obtain evidence of wrongful action in a civil suit, to document an individual’s location, to document activities in or around a specific location or building, to obtain information to be used in an interrogation, to gather intelligence as a basis for future action, and to obtain information to be used in court.

Types Of Investigations Requiring Surveillance

Missing person, worker’s compensation claim, cheating spouse, vandalism, recurrent theft. 

Types Of Surveillance

The types of surveillance that fit with individual cases vary. Private investigators have to decide which types of surveillance are best suited by understanding the case and the desired outcome of the surveillance. The nature of the case will dictate whether the surveillance will be mechanical or human, whether it will be covert or overt, and whether the surveillance will be stationary or mobile.

Mechanical Surveillance verses Human Surveillance

Mechanical surveillance is when technological devices are used to conduct surveillance. This is beneficial because equipment doesn’t get tired, hungry, or bored. Equipment can be used at multiple locations at the same time and information from equipment at different locations can be accessed simultaneously. For example, mechanical surveillance would be used over human in a case where someone is stealing from a construction site. Private investigators can put up cameras and go back and harvest the recordings.

Human surveillance is when the investigative team is the main source of information. Human surveillance includes tailing targets and observing targets in person. If a private investigator is looking for a missing child, they have to start by investigating the usual haunts of the child and personally visiting those locations.

Overt Surveillance verses Covert Surveillance

Overt surveillance is visible security like security agents at the mall and security cameras in casinos. With overt surveillance, people know the surveillance equipment is there to make sure no one is stealing or cheating.

Covert surveillance is undetected surveillance. Undercover detectives usually conduct this type of surveillance. It may involve trailing a target or using a piece of equipment, like a GPS tracking device, on a company truck or automobile without the company or driver’s knowledge (provided it does not violate the laws within that state.)

Mobile Surveillance verses Stationary Surveillance

Mobile surveillance, obviously, involves following a moving target. Say a target you are tailing gets in his or her car and drives away, you may want to continue the surveillance by using your automobile.

Stationary surveillance is when the investigator stays in one place to observe the target. If a commercial or residential property is being vandalized, a private investigator may be hired to watch the property from a stationary post, like a parked car, to gain evidence of the crime and who the perpetrator is.

Prepare For Surveillance

Know the client’s needs. What is it that the client is trying to accomplish through surveillance? The answer to this question determines what types of surveillance will be needed, the scope of the project and the types of equipment that will be used. Private investigators have to educate the potential client and manage their expectations as investigations are often more complicated and costly than the client anticipates.

Know The Subject

Before performing surveillance, investigators should always complete a background check with comprehensive records research on the target and acquire as much information as possible about them - name, address, phone number, complete physical description, photograph, and relatives in the immediate vicinity. Private investigators will also want to know pertinent background information such as routines, habits, hobbies, schedules and associates.

Know The Area

Private investigators should always have a map of the area where the surveillance will be taking place. If possible, they should also have a photograph of the building they are watching or the location where surveillance will begin. If surveillance is taking place at night or in the early morning, it’s a good idea to visit the site during various periods of the day and night.

Know Your Equipment

The kind of equipment a private investigator uses is contingent upon the nature of the surveillance itself. Private investigators need to get familiar with their equipment ahead of time and practice with it. If surveillance involves a camera or a video camera, prepared investigators will have two of them with backup batteries. Investigators seldom get a second opportunity to capture an activity.

Every private investigator should have a flashlight for working at night, binoculars or a telescope, a tape recorder, two-way radios for team surveillance, a tripod for security equipment, full tank of gas in the car, appropriate attire, snacks and water.

Know Yourself

Private investigators must do what is necessary to prepare their minds for work, like exercise, get plenty of sleep and have a practiced plan. All private investigators should also to be prepared for a situation where they are approached by a stranger or by the police while conducting surveillance. Always have a convincing story ready to tell.

What Every Investigator Should Know About Surveillance

Surveillance is incredibly demanding and challenging. Private investigators who are successful at surveillance have to possess certain qualities. Someone with an outgoing personality, exceptional communication skills, the ability to take action, a good memory, an ability to blend into their surroundings and a strong attention to detail would be a good fit for surveillance. This person should also be honest, patient, observant, resourceful, flexible and focused. Not every person is able to sit for hours and focus on a particular area. Investigators often sit in an automobile for up to ten hours on the coldest day of winter or the hottest day of summer.

Ethics And Laws Relevant To Surveillance

All private investigators should know the laws that may affect their work in their respective states or face a possible prison sentence. Trespassing and audio recording laws are especially important to know. Laws regarding audio recording vary state to state and some states prohibit covert audio recording.


Surveillance is not always necessary in an investigation. Surveillance adds to an investigation when a visual confirmation of the actions or the whereabouts of the subject is necessary to concluding the investigation. If an investigator needs to catch a thief in the act, find and confirm the whereabouts of a missing person, or prove a worker’s compensation claim is false, surveillance is necessary.

** An interesting and eye-opening article on the subject of audio recording: Broken Record Laws  

Brian Blackwell Investigations
2225 Sycamore Street
Harrisburg, Pennsylvania

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