Surveillance is a key component of any investigation. Private investigators should be well-versed in the various surveillance methodologies available to them, as well as the tools they can–and cannot use–when conducting an investigation. In this guide, we’ll explore the importance of surveillance in an investigation, describe the various types and tools of surveillance, and touch on the ethics of surveillance techniques.
What is Surveillance?
Surveillance is the act of monitoring or observing individuals, groups, or environments, often with the intention of gathering information or preventing criminal activity. Surveillance takes many forms, including physical observation, electronic monitoring, video recording, data collection, and analysis. Law enforcement and private investigators use surveillance to maintain security, enforce laws and regulations, protect against threats, and investigate criminal activity.
Why is Surveillance a Vital Part of an Investigation?
Surveillance is necessary for investigations for the simple fact that criminals go to great lengths to conceal criminal activity. By conducting surveillance, investigators can uncover evidence necessary to convict a criminal or justify further legal action, such as the serving of a warrant.
Investigators can also track subjects’ actions and whereabouts using surveillance methods, looking for activity that might incriminate or clear them of suspicion. Surveillance can help investigators identify and map criminal networks, including the relationships between suspects and their associates, providing valuable insights into the structure and operations of criminal organizations
6 Types of Surveillance
There are many ways to conduct surveillance during an investigation. Here are some of the most popular ways to gather intel and information on a subject.
1. Physical Surveillance
Sometimes referred to as direct surveillance, physical surveillance involves observing people or places in person. With physical surveillance, investigators can either follow suspects around a location (commonly referred to as moving surveillance) or from a stationary position, also known as a “stakeout.”
2. Electronic Surveillance
Electronic surveillance relies on electronic devices such as cameras, microphones, GPS trackers, and other monitoring tools to gather information. Electronic surveillance is typically used by security personnel to monitor individuals within public and private establishments, but it’s also used by investigators who need to capture and record covert conversations or activities.
3. Computer Surveillance
Not all crimes are committed in person. That’s where computer surveillance comes in. This method consists of monitoring an individual’s computer usage, including their internet history, emails, and other online activities.
4. Social Media Surveillance
Information shared on social media is not protected by a reasonable expectation of privacy; therefore, investigators can monitor a suspect’s social media activity to gather information about their activities, interests, and contacts.
5. Financial Surveillance
Financial surveillance involves monitoring financial transactions and activities to detect and prevent financial crimes such as money laundering. Financial surveillance can be done on an individual level or a corporate level.
6. Biometric Surveillance
Biometric surveillance uses various forms of technology to identify individuals based on physical characteristics such as fingerprints, facial recognition, or iris scans. CCTV is a common tool used in biometric surveillance.
Tools Needed for Surveillance
There are a number of tools investigators can use to increase their efficacy with surveillance. Here are the most popular surveillance tools investigators can use during their investigations.
Having a vehicle is very important when conducting physical surveillance as it allows you to follow the suspect with relative ease. You should try to pick a fairly non-descript and reliable car for your surveillance vehicle so you can covertly observe subjects without notice or intervention.
A GPS tracker is a small electronic device that can be planted on a subject’s vehicle to monitor their location and travel patterns. However, using a GPS tracker is not always necessary or legal depending on the situation. Investigators must have a legitimate reason to place a GPS tracker, something that is known as permissible purpose. Cases that provide permissible purpose include situations such as suspected marital infidelity, suspicions of child neglect from a spouse or ex-spouse, and more.
One of the most classic surveillance tools, binoculars allow an investigator to observe a subject from a distance. Binoculars allow for anonymity and reduce the odds of blowing your cover.
Recording conversations is a hallmark of investigative surveillance and is used to capture conversations or other audio evidence. Investigators should invest in inconspicuous recording devices that can be hidden or used in plain sight. However, there are some situations where using an audio recorder is not permissible. Investigators should always be aware of when they can and cannot record subjects without their consent.
Most smartphone cameras have advanced considerably over the years, making it easy to take high-quality photos and videos. However, professional DSLR cameras still surpass phone cameras as far as quality and capabilities are concerned. A high-quality camera with powerful zoom and night vision capabilities can capture clear images and videos of your subject in nearly every situation.
Investigators need access to a computer when conducting surveillance, both to uncover information and log that information. Investigators can use software and other databases to gather a wealth of information vital to solving an investigation.
Virtual Private Network (VPN)
A VPN is a useful tool for private investigators to protect their online privacy and security while conducting surveillance and to access information that may be restricted or difficult to obtain through other means.
In some cases, an investigator may need to access websites that are blocked in their location. A VPN can be used to bypass these restrictions and access the information they need. Depending on who the investigator is working with, a VPN can also help protect confidential information by encrypting investigative data sent over the internet, making it more difficult for others to intercept or access this information and sabotage the investigation.
What Evidence Can You Collect and Use from Surveillance?
It's important to note that the use of surveillance tools and strategies are heavily regulated and even restricted by law in certain areas. Private investigators should always ensure they are following all relevant laws and regulations mandated by the state when conducting surveillance.
What you can and cannot use in an investigation varies from state to state, though many types of evidence and means for collecting that evidence are allowed across the board.
Evidence from Social Media
Public social media posts are permissible as evidence in most investigations as long as the information is obtained legally. That means investigators cannot hack devices or accounts, nor can they use phishing techniques to gain access to an individual’s account.
Learn more: Can a Private Investigator Use Social Media?
Evidence from GPS Tracking
States have differing opinions regarding evidence gathered from GPS tracking devices. Though it largely depends on the state and the circumstance, investigators can sometimes use GPS tracking devices on an individual’s car or property without their knowledge. However, it is never permissible to place a GPS tracker on an individual themselves without their knowledge or consent.
Evidence from Video and Audio Recording Devices
Video and audio evidence can also be tricky as not all states agree on what is and is not permissible. Unless the video and audio evidence was recorded in a public place where a reasonable expectation of privacy does not apply, investigators should check with state laws and regulations before capturing such evidence.
Concluding Thoughts on Surveillance
Private investigators need to understand the different types of surveillance methodologies available to them and the tools they can use when conducting an investigation. By conducting surveillance, investigators can uncover evidence necessary to convict a criminal or justify further legal action, such as the serving of a warrant.
However, private investigators should be aware of the permissible purposes for collecting and using evidence obtained from surveillance to avoid violating individuals' privacy rights. By following ethical standards and proper procedures, private investigators can successfully conduct surveillance and gather evidence to solve their cases.
Want to learn more about surveillance ethics and techniques? Take our Surveillance Ethics course to level up your career as a private investigator.
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