Covert Investigations: Cameras

Is covert surveillance a necessary part of your investigation? Lux levels, nanny cams and other camera considerations

The elusive suspect had countered the manufacturing site security's reactive measures for the last 3 months. Dogging the well placed but ineffective overt closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras, the unknown suspect gained access to the administration's offices and finger-painted anti-corporation slogans along the walls with red paint for the fourth time. Even after increasing physical security patrols to that area, the stealthy suspect made his mark on the walls expressing his discontent for the company's stock price.

An often simple, but miscalculated solution to this type of investigation and others like it is the use of covert video cameras.

Catching your criminal red handed and much like an undercover sting operation on COPS can do wonders for solving your investigation. However, there are many technical considerations you need to know before you join the CIA's black ops team.

In this three-part series we will cover covert cameras, recording devices and setup for your security investigation.

Covert Surveillance Part One: Cameras

As you may have experienced with your own CCTV system, not all cameras are created equally. When shopping for a covert camera there are four main factors that need to be decided upon before you set up:

  • size
  • resolution
  • lux level
  • and power consumption.

Each of these factors will be imperative to your successful closure of the investigation and cannot be overlooked or ignored.

Learn more about the potential HR pitfalls of covert surveillance

Size is an obvious part to focus on due to your covert setup, but not always a must. Cameras range from large bricks to fingernail-size pinhole 2.9mm lenses. You will also find as the size of the camera decreases, often times the resolution and lux levels get worse and the price goes up. With that said, I always leave size on my list of needs last. Cameras can be hidden no matter what the size, and will be more effective with high resolution and a low lux level.

In a world where everyone has a digital camera or HDTV, many people already recognize the need for high resolution images. This should be no different with your covert camera. The last situation you need is to catch a criminal act on video but then be unable to identify the individual clearly due to the poor resolution from your cheap camera. To combat this, always make sure you are getting a camera that captures 740 x 480 lines of resolution or more. Anything less and you may have a hard time making out details, especially in low light situations.

Speaking of low light, cameras are rated by their ability to use illumination to see. This is called the camera's lux level and any legit vendor will have this information about their cameras. The lower the lux level, the better the camera works in darkness. Typically you will find very low lux level cameras to be black and white or to have the support of infrared led lights attached to the camera. Be sure to check the lighting of the area you plan on recording for any changes (timers, sun going down, etc) before setting up your surveillance.

Lastly you need to think about the camera's power consumption. Although not as important as resolution or lux level, don't forget about this step. Depending on your camera deployment you may resort to using ac adapters at a nearby electrical outlet, battery power or even solar power for the remote locations. Sometimes you may find the perfect and only placement for your camera, but no electrical outlet that you can use unnoticed. In this case a battery pack (I like using an R/C car battery pack) might be useful and knowing the camera's power consumption information can help you set this up. Again, a reputable vendor will have the specifications for voltage and you can easily calculate the battery life you can achieve with different battery sizes (9 volts, R/C, golf cart, marine batteries).

One word of advice in shopping for covert cameras: Never buy "nanny cam" setups online. Ebay and other vendors often place cheap pinhole cameras with no resolution and high lux levels in what appear to be ingenious setups like clock radios, lamps and teddy bears. Although creative, the bad quality cameras, high mark-up prices and the fact the clock you just purchased doesn't blend into the office your suspect knows better than you, will leave you throwing it into a junk box never to see the light of day.

Also read about the basics of internal investigations

Instead opt for purchasing a high resolution, low lux black and white micro board camera (approximately 1 inch x 1 inch) that can be easily powered with an ac adapter or battery pack and fits into any office or covert setup. For around $150 you can reuse this camera in hundreds of different setups. Vendors like Super Circuits (www.supercircuits.com) and Security Cameras Direct (www.scdlink.com) have great prices and actual customer support that can help you setup your camera for the right operation.

By keeping these suggestions in mind when setting up your covert surveillance you can easily gather quality evidence to catch your suspect on camera.

In the next two parts of this series we will discuss how to covertly record your video and out-of-the-box options for conducting covert surveillance.

Brandon Gregg is a corporate investigations manager. Read his previous Investigator's Toolkit columns on CSOonline.com.

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