What comes to mind when you think of surveillance? Chances are you imagine something like a scene out of a classic spy movie where a detective stakes out at a suspect’s home and then clandestinely pursues the subject all around town. While these can be valid forms of surveillance, private investigator surveillance often encompasses a much broader array of activities, including digital surveillance, interviewing, and technical surveillance.
In this post, we will explore what surveillance is, the ethics of private investigator surveillance, the various types of surveillance, and some basic surveillance techniques.
What is Surveillance for a Private Investigator?
Surveillance is the close observation of a person, place, or object in order to gather information. Surveillance is one of the most effective and often-used tools in a private investigator’s tool belt and can result in invaluable information that can be used in subsequent criminal investigations or legal proceedings.
The Ethics of Surveillance
When it comes to surveillance, private investigators must always act in a lawful and ethical way. For example, private investigators are not allowed to hack into private online accounts, secretly bug phones, or spy on someone in a private place, such as within a home. Understanding the does and don’t of private surveillance is critical to ensure private investigators avoid legal trouble of their own and ensure they are operating ethically.
To assist private investigators in understanding the ethics of surveillance, NITA offers a Surveillance Ethics for Investigators Course that provides a comprehensive definition of ethics and reviews the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, Fair Credit Reporting Act, and other common laws governing private investigators.
Types of Surveillance
Surveillance investigations often have a broad scope and can include a variety of different types of surveillance. For example, surveillance could be active (e.g. physically monitoring a person or place) or passive (e.g. evaluating reports or documents). It could also take place in both the physical and digital worlds. Generally speaking, there are four primary types of surveillance:
- Digital Surveillance - This includes monitoring a person or group’s online activity. This would include monitoring a person’s public social media, participation in forums online, or any other publicly available online or digital activity.
- Physical Surveillance - This approach to surveillance encompasses everything that would classically fall under the definition of surveillance, such as staking out at a location, following a suspect on foot or by vehicle, and recording a person’s public activities.
- Interview Surveillance - Interviewing people also falls under the umbrella of surveillance and can include interviewing suspects, coworkers, witnesses, family, and friends depending on the particular type of case.
- Technical Surveillance - Technical surveillance encompasses all active and passive surveillance activities that involve tools, such as audio, video, or any other technical method for capturing and recording information.
9 Surveillance Techniques that Private Investigators Can Use
How exactly does a private investigator effectively conduct surveillance? While not exhaustive, here are nine of our favorite basic surveillance techniques for private investigators to use and master.
1. Blend in
Private investigators, like anyone else, can go anywhere in public. They are not, however, allowed to trespass on private property, break into, or otherwise illegally gain access to, any building, device, storage area, filing cabinet, or private property without proper permission. Hollywood often depicts private investigators trespassing as part of their job—breaking into buildings, climbing over fences into private property, and rummaging through filing cabinets that don’t belong to them. This could not be further from the truth.
2. Don’t underestimate the value of passive surveillance
Surveillance does not always have to be a glamorous Hollywood-esque super-sleuth experience. At the end of the day, you have a job to do, and that may involve less-than-glamorous aspects. One of these activities will likely be passive surveillance. Depending on the type of case, this could include things like analyzing safety reports or reviewing work logs.
3. Start online
Over the past two decades, more and more of our lives have migrated into the online world, and much of this information is now public. For the private investigator, online public profiles, social media, and digital databases are a treasure trove of information, this is often a great investigation starting point.
4. Keep your distance, but not too far
This is a key vehicle surveillance technique for private investigators to develop. If you follow a subject too closely, you will likely draw attention to yourself and may not have sufficient time to react to a changing situation. It’s also important not to follow from too far away, especially in rush hour traffic or congested areas. Each situation will vary and will require that you maintain a sense of awareness of your surroundings and situation.
5. Avoid eye contact
Making eye contact is a sure way to let someone know you are looking at him or her. Private investigators need to develop their ability to avoid direct eye contact. This means not facing the person you are monitoring or being too obvious with your eyes or body language. This skill will be immensely useful in private surveillance situations where a PI may need to get close to a subject without blowing his or her cover.
6. Anticipate your responses
When a situation changes, many people need time to make a decision and react. When you don’t anticipate your situation, you can easily make the wrong decision. For the private investigator, this can mean losing sight of a subject or drawing attention to himself or herself. When you are conducting physical surveillance, it’s critical to always be anticipating your next move. What will you do if the subject goes right? What about left? What do I do if they look in my direction? By anticipating and planning your response to each type of situation, you can make faster, higher-quality surveillance decisions.
7. Prepare an explanation for what you're doing
If your surveillance requires you to remain anonymous, you may need to have an alibi or story prepared in the event that you are confronted. You should think through your story and also consider having props in your vehicle or on your person that supports your story. For example, you could have a dog leash in your hand or bags of groceries in the front seat to make your story more believable.
8. Don't be weird or creepy
Private investigators must act appropriately at all times and should not give anyone any reason to suspect them of wrongdoing. This means you will avoid behavior that may be considered questionable, like loitering around a playground or school. It also means that you will be focused and aware of your surroundings at all times. These helpful tips will help you avoid awkward situations that could unintentionally blow your cover.
9. Document because you just never know
Taking notes of your observations is a critical practice to develop as well. Even small observations can provide useful insights into a case. For example, a simple observation of whether the blinds are open or the car is in the garage or driveway can combine with other information to paint a more detailed picture of a situation.
Most importantly, private investigators must remain flexible and adaptive to any particular situation. Each surveillance situation is different and may require a different tactic or technique. Being open to change will make you a more effective private investigator and, ultimately, improve the quality of your surveillance activities.
Interested in learning more? At NITA, we provide a wide selection of online courses for private investigators. We offer courses for people just setting out on their PI certification journey and seasoned private investigators looking to continue their education or maintain their certification.