Thinking of Covert Video Operation?

Investigators refine tools and techniques
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by James Careless

Most government video work is open and above board. We walk in with our camera equipment, get the shots, take the footage back to our offices for editing and production.

But sometimes government video producers are tasked to shoot covert video. It can be as part of a police investigation, or an internal security audit, or even just to find out who'e been stealing lunches from the staff refrigerator.

In these instances, it is important to know how to shoot covert video, and the tools that exist to do so effectively.


Nashville is America's undisputed country music capital. A lot of big business takes place here. So do other deals that are not quite as legitimate or legal.

To keep a close eye on the latter, there's the TSCM/Special Operations Group. It is a licensed private investigation company that does it all, specializing in technical surveillance and covert video.

Mitch Davis is a technical surveillance expert with the TSCM/Special Operations Group.

"One time we had to mount a month-long surveillance operation on a remote farmhouse," Davis said. "To do it, we had to creep up in full camouflage gear in the middle of the night. Once there, we mounted a very small camera on a tree facing the house, and we ran cable to ground level. We then had to dig a hole to hide the recorder and marine battery power supply; there was no electricity available close by."

On a regular basis, at night Davis' crew had to return to the site, hauling new batteries and recording media.

"We had to dig up the equipment, switch it out, and then recover the media in a way that didn't give away its location," he said. "But the real trick was to get in and out as quickly and quietly as we could, without getting caught!"

As it turned out, the operation was a success. The subjects of the surveillance-the suspects going in and out of the farmhouse-were captured and identified on digital video as required. The video helped obtain convictions of the suspects in court.


The techniques used on the farmhouse job are common to covert video operations in general.

First, the camera must be discreetly located so that it has a clear view of the surveillance area without arousing suspicion. Sometimes this can be done using a body-worn "button-style" camera, which literally takes the place of a button on someone's shirt. Other times, the camera can be concealed in the bridge of a pair of sunglasses, or hidden within a commonplace item like a clock radio, teddy bear or iPod docking station. A third option is to simply conceal a small camera where it is hard to spot, such as among foliage outdoors. Recording is the second consideration.

"You can record directly to a recorder integrated with the camera, hardwire the camera to a distant recorder, or broadcast the video wirelessly to a receive site," said Davis. "The biggest problem with an integrated recorder is that you have to get to the device to retrieve the media. Meanwhile, nonencrypted wireless video signals can be interfered with, and intercepted, especially if you are working in the unlicensed bands that are also used by cordless phones and other devices. My first choice is to hardwire the camera to a remote DV recorder, so that the video is secure, clean, and easy to retrieve."


One would think that placement of camera equipment would pose the biggest challenge for capturing covert video. But this isn't the case; today video cameras and recorders exist in all shapes and sizes. Many of them are so cleverly disguised that they are virtually undetectable.

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Button cam So what are the real techniques that a covert video producer has to deal with? The first one is electricity.

"Ideally, you will be able to use a device with a hidden camera that can be powered from a wall socket," said Davis. "If not, then you've got to find some other way to tap into existing power-and create an opportunity to do so that doesn't tip off your surveillance subject-or end up toting batteries in and out as we did at that farmhouse job."

The second challenge is balancing image resolution against camera size.

"You need to ensure that the image detail is good enough, and that the camera can handle ambient lighting conditions you are left to work with," said Davis. "Finally, you need to make sure that you can access the stored video easily, and that you can get to the equipment to service it if something goes wrong. A great hidden camera job is useless if it stops working, especially if you can't regain access to it without alerting your surveillance subject."


While playing the Joker in the Tim Burton version of "Batman," Jack Nicholson was heard to observe, "Where does he get those wonderful toys?"

In the field of covert video, one such source is Spytek Imports. It sells a broad range of camera, recorders, and concealed video capture devices.

"We offer anything that can be hidden on the body, whether as buttons, in hats or glasses, and all sorts of household items with cameras and recorders built in," said Cody Woods, vice president of Thomas Investigative Publications and Spytek. "The real question is resolution and image quality: You can buy either CMOS or CCD cameras-CCDs provide higher resolution-and choose what kind of lowlight sensitivity you require."

Button cams, available at Spytek's Website, poke through a shirt/coat buttonhole, just as any button would. But they capture audio and video that is recorded on a separate DVR; usually kept in a pocket. (They can also be connected to a wireless transmitter for distant reception/recording.) Other items that play up this same line are wristwatch camera/recorders and a car key fob; just drop your keys on the table and shoot away!

If you are feeling James Bond-ish, then you might want to get the New Generation Stealth ProSurveillance Video Pack. This kit comes with "Covert Video Eyeglasses" with a CMOS camera built into the bridge. You can use the included clear lenses indoors, or one of three sets of tinted lenses for outdoor surveillance. The video from the glasses is sent by a tiny concealed wire (inside your shirt) to a pocket DVR. It comes with an onboard LCD screen, plus time/date stamping. With an SD card added, this DVR can record for five hours at a time on 128 MB of internal memory.

For long-term, unattended video surveillance, video cameras/ recorders are being installed inside consumer items such as clock radios, toys, home audio centers, clocks, smoke detectors, plug-in air fresheners, outdoor electrical boxes, exit signs, floodlights, table lamps and mirror frames-even tissue box covers and flower pots. Since these items are consumer items first, with the cameras added later, they feature brand names and appearances that will not arouse suspicion.

Even with all these easily available tools it is wise to get any covert video operations approved by people with thorough legal knowledge-or to use use a professional surveillance firm such as the TSCM/Special Operations Group. You don't want covert video to get you in trouble, rather than the suspect you are trying to catch in the act!


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