SURVEILLANCE: The Technological Evolution

On June 15, 2011, in Blog, by sieditor

Dick Tracy would be proud if he were alive today!! The advances in “Detective” (surveillance) technology have exceeded the fictional imaginations of yesteryear. In fact, a watch cell phone/camera/video camera is now on the market. Even Dick Tracy’s watch did not shoot video!! Over the past 25 years, surveillance equipment and technology has significantly improved the surveillance results obtained…by seasoned professionals. It is interesting to reflect back on the past 25 years and the technology that has evolved in the surveillance world.

Video Camcorders

When first getting into the PI business in 1981, I watched TV detective shows that glamorized (i.e. fictionalized) the industry. I was very surprised, and somewhat disappointed, about the lack of sophisticated equipment available to me when conducting my first surveillance.

The surveillance cameras were nothing short of the type used by our parents for home movies—movie cameras with no long range capabilities or any other redeeming features. In short, one had to be within 50 feet of the subject if any useful film was to be obtained. Then in the mid 1980’s, along came the “video” camera, with units about the size of news crew cameras that would house a standard sized VHS (or Beta) tape. In my excitement, I went out and purchased the first “Beta” model, which cost roughly 2-3 times the current video camera models available (of course, the “Beta format” became obsolete in less than two years after I purchased it).

It was a vast improvement, but still lacked the “stealth” needed when conducting surveillance (e.g. too large and with short range capabilities). Then along came the smaller, sleeker, video cameras with smaller “8 mm” tapes that could later be converted to a VHS tape. The new cameras eventually included night vision (limited), longer range capabilities, improved stabilization (less “shake”), and other features useful to the surveillance investigator. These cameras were the “standard” in the industry for a 5-7 year stretch…until digital recorders were introduced in the past 3-5 years.

Since then, the technology has advanced rapidly to include even smaller cameras with many advanced features. The “mini-DV (digital video) cameras/tapes were introduced, followed shortly thereafter by the current HD (hard drive) video cameras that require NO tape, but store the video on the hard drive of the camera, and then downloadable onto a DVD. The newest cameras fit into the palm of your hand, have all the “bells and whistles” available, and are still more affordable than most cameras when they were first introduced. Needless to say, surveillance cameras have “come a long way, baby.”

Hidden Cameras

The use of “hidden cameras” has increased significantly over the past 10 years. When I first started in the PI business in 1981, there was no such device. Recently, I watched a “Mission Impossible” (1970s) episode in which they installed a “hidden camera” in a wall lamp. It was comical to say the least, particularly since the lens of the camera was about 2 inches in diameter, and could be seen by anyone who was the least bit observant. In the mid 1990’s, “pinhole” (the lens was nearly the size of a pinhead) cameras were introduced to the PI industry and were hidden in baseball caps, pagers and other items.

It wasn’t long before “hidden” cameras were used by many surveillance investigators as “standard” equipment. Initially, the camera (actually a pinhole lens) was attached to a recording devise (video camera/recorder) by a wire/cable which required the investigator to carry the video recording devise in a “fanny pack” or other means of concealment. Then, along came the wireless “hidden” cameras that enabled the investigator to keep the video recording devise in another location (vehicle, etc.) while going into a store with a “hidden” camera that would transmit the video to the recording devise through a “transmitter/receiver.” More recently, the “hidden” cameras have become single unit cameras/recorders that are small enough to fit in a keychain or other concealable item.

Video Viewing

In the past, surveillance films required the appropriate “viewing” equipment by the individual(s) viewing it. Many individuals did not have the necessary equipment at the office so would have to take the VHS tapes home to view them after work. Then along came CDs and DVDs. As a result, individuals who needed to view the video were able to do so on their computers. In the past 3-5 years, more advanced options of viewing the video online or via email have evolved. For example, our Investigators can now go to a website within minutes of obtaining the video, upload the video onto a website, which can then be emailed to anyone interested in viewing the video. Anyone with standard “Windows Media Player” software can simply click on a link received in an email and view as much of the video as they wish to, enabling them to make much quicker decisions about whether to authorize additional surveillance, or forward the video to an attorney, doctor, or other involved party, for quicker decision making. As in advanced cameras, the method of delivery has “come a long way, baby.”

GPS Units

In the late 1990’s, Global Positioning System (GPS) units were installed in automobiles, and would enable law enforcement to track down stolen vehicles. Since then, GPS units have become readily available to anyone interested in purchasing one. The unit is now small enough to fit in your pocket and can be attached anywhere on or in a vehicle, and allows the tracking of that vehicle, via an internet site, anywhere it goes. However, the use of a GPS unit is unlawful in California UNLESS the person using it is the registered owner of the vehicle that it is being contained in. In other words, if an Investigator intimates or suggests to you that he/she is using such a devise, BOTH you and the Investigator are most likely in violation of the law, and is not something to be involved in, regardless of its potential benefits.

Cell (Radio) Phones

In the past, communicating with another Investigator on a two-person surveillance case was very ineffective, and limited to short range “line of sight” two-way radios. The radios were very unreliable, especially when around tall buildings or underground parking lots. Then, along came cell phones, both with and without two-way radio capabilities. Now Investigators can keep in constant contact with each other AND with the client, office, and/or any other source necessary, increasing the likelihood of a successful surveillance. In the past, the Investigator would have to leave his/her post to find a nearby pay phone if they needed to run a license plate, request additional assistance/information, update the client/office, and/or make any other necessary calls, often risking the subject leaving or doing something relevant in the interim.


These are only some of the significant technological advances that have “revolutionized” the surveillance industry in the past 25 years. Obviously, these advances have significantly improved the likelihood of a successful surveillance. However, technology alone cannot produce a successful surveillance. It still requires the skills of a surveillance “specialist” who has the experience in conducting surveillance, knows how to utilize the new equipment, how to “tail” a subject, how to apply investigative skills, and how to effectively communicate the results to others. Having both the expertise and the latest “tools” is a winning combination…that would make even Dick Tracy proud!!

by Richard Harer

Image Credit: Memories by Gorm 



Comments are closed.

LOS ANGELES: Encino, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Woodland Hills, and Glendale       ANAHEIM: Santa Ana, Irvine, Newport Beach, Long Beach, and Pomona

SAN FRANCISCO: Santa Rosa, San Jose, Monterey, Concord, and Oakland  SAN DIEGO: Riverside, Chula Vista, El Cajon, Del Mar, and Oceanside

SACRAMENTO: Fresno , Modesto, Stockton, Vacaville, and Roseville       ARIZONA: Phoenix, Scottsdale

WASHINGTON: Seattle, Spokane

Copyright © 2017 Specialized Investigations. All Rights Reserved.