Hidden Cameras: Secret Witnesses Out of Eyeshot

Constantly developing new disguises is key
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Constantly developing new disguises is key

Whether it is a group of illegal narcotics manufacturers stealing agricultural supplies to make their products, or a team of identity thieves embedded within a government agency, law officers are increasingly using covert surveillance cameras to catch the wrongdoers and put them out of business.

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Left: U-Spy Enterprises’ Color Micro Security Camera-1751; right: Visual Data Inc.’s AXIS Q1755 HDTV camera

Covert surveillance cameras, also known as “spy cameras” or “stealth cams,” are distinctly different from the common surveillance equipment normally seen mounted outside a pole at the shopping mall. Covert cameras are normally installed to be invisible and to secretly catch thieves, or other criminals, in the act.

Today’s cameras can be the size of a 25-cent coin, deliver high-definition (HD) clarity to a laptop computer, and are often connected to a recording device over an Internet protocol (IP) network, and watched by a security guard or by a law enforcement officer.

“Obviously if you’re trying to catch a crook, and show up with a huge camcorder on your shoulder, then that won’t work,” said Perry Myers, who owns a private detective company and sells surveillance equipment at U-Spy Enterprises in Chicago. “But if you want to catch somebody doing something they are not supposed to be doing, then you do it covertly.”

The price of such hidden cameras can range from $200 for simpler models to more than $1,000 for the complex models, Myers said. Which should be acquired will depend on what it is needed for. There are three main options with the first being a “wired” camera, or a camera connected by a video cable to a recording device; followed by “wireless” camera, or a camera with a built in transmitter that will send the video wirelessly to a near by (hidden) receiver that can either record the action or re-transmit it; and a “stealth” camera, or a camera with a built-in digital video recorder that captures images direct to a “secure digital memory card” that has to be retrieved later.


U-Spy, which does system integration for law enforcement, often uses a gnat-sized camera—Color Micro Security Camera-1751—for undercover covert work. The unit is about the size of a postage stamp and can often be hidden in plain site because crooks do not recognize it as a camera, he said. It sends pictures through a color complementary metal–oxide–semiconductor (CMOS) camera that does not draw much power—it comes with a 5-Volt DC power supply—and therefore does not produce much waste heat.

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Left: The Badger System’s camera; Center: The Badger System’s recorder; Right: Supercircuits Inc.’s Badger System

Visual Data Inc, a Charlotte, N.C, video system integrator, installs a number of stealth and wireless cameras in law enforcement settings, according to Richard Treanor, the company’s general manager. Visual Data often deploys the AXIS Q1755 HDTV camera for covert settings and which delivers HDTV 1080i or 720p resolution, with a 16:9 aspect ratio and supports both H.264 and Motion JPEG in full frame rate. The AXIS Q1755 has 10x optical zoom, 12x digital zoom and auto focus, and the camera has a built-in slot for an SDHC card, enabling local storage of several days of recordings, without any external equipment.

Visual Data also offers the AXIS Q1755 in a wireless version that can be linked into a computer network, he said. And, the camera is very smart. It incorporates a Gatekeeper functionality that automatically zooms in when there is activity in the predetermined scene, and then zooms out after a preset interval.

Supercircuits Inc. of Texas, a manufacturer of security and hidden cameras, offers a “field surveillance video recording system,” or Badger System, which houses a Sony Super HAD CCD, video recorder and independent power supply encased in a waterproof plastic housing. The housing can be disguised in various ways and is used normally for rural covert work by law enforcement, said Jake Lahmann, Supercircuits’ vice president of technology.


Although the camera technology has improved over the past decade, it is really the ingenuity of the companies that come up with the covert disguises that really keep the tactic viable, Lahmann said. Specific covert camouflage strategies are a closely held secret that most manufacturers, or police departments, will not discuss.

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However, Lahmann said that the companies work with law enforcement to constantly come up with new tricks. Producers of such cameras “have to be very clever,” he said. “In every instance that cameras are placed, like the middle of a cornfield, it is done so in a manner where the normal person won’t perceive it a anything but benign.”

And, it also helps to be able to think like a crook.

“You have to have a good pulse in what bad guys are able to perceive,” he said. “Stealth ink pens were very common thing a few years ago. Now, there is no way an undercover [officer] can use a camera ink pen.”