• United States



Covert investigations 3: covert surveillance setup

Jul 12, 20107 mins
CamerasInvestigation and ForensicsPhysical Security

Ready to catch your bad guy in the act? Investigations manager Brandon Gregg on how to put the right surveillance equipment in the right place.

With our new low lux camera and high resolution, 30 fps DVR delivered to the office after reading Covert investigations: cameras and recording devices, it’s time to catch our finger-painting bad guy who is still targeting the late night halls of the corporate office.

Although everything about your new camera and DVR looks plug and play like the website promises, that statement from your vendor is far from the truth. The time you have spent investigating your case and the money you just laid down on equipment could be washed away with your hard work faster than the frames per second in your DVR with the wrong setup. Not only can tipping off a subject occur, but your covert recording could lead to possible litigation and/or criminal charges for yourself due to improper covert recordings.

Also see How to plan an investigation

The setup of your covert equipment is a fragile part of the investigation that too many people rush during a panic to catch their subject. Like your selection of a covert camera and DVR, the setup of a covert installation has steps to follow as well:

  1. Plan Install
  2. Get Under An Umbrella
  3. Test
  4. Final Install

Plan Install

Even the best setup won’t catch every bad guy on video but assessing the install will give you a better understanding of the challenges you are about to face. What looked like an easy setup quickly changes at 2am hanging from a ladder or after a wrath of legal challenges from your human resources department. Before consulting with your management, legal department or human resources about your covert install, assess the situation thoroughly. Obliviously you have purchased the equipment so your mind is set, but before any covert installation gather as much intelligence about the investigation, the area under surveillance and how you plan to do the install. Make note of the area’s lighting, power, accessibility to the location, concealment locations (height of the ceiling, type of tile, camouflage, etc) and any that might affect your setup or increase the odds to catch the subject in the act. Measure and sketch the area to be under surveillance, take photographs of the scene and document everything. Not only will this help plan every detail for a late-night install, but it will help you build multiple contingency plans should something go wrong.

As discussed in Covert investigations: cameras, your camera can be easily hidden no matter what the size you purchase using the natural environment and a little creative thinking. Most suspects aren’t actively looking for a camera and you can use that to your installation advantage for quick and easy setups. Placing a pinhole in the ceiling often takes time, skills and may limit your viewing angles vs. placing a camera in a plant or between a stack of books on a shelf. Even the expensive “nanny cameras” can be quickly made with a box of tissues, a small hole and a glue gun for free. Remember sometimes a view of the subject’s face or an identifier is all you need to close your investigations, so don’t stress if the actual incident isn’t caught on video. Your suspect, the jury and everyone else involved will be able to reasonably deduct that he painted the office red if he is the only person in the room at 3am.

Get Under an Umbrella

Obviously installs in the men’s restroom are out of the question and very few legal teams or juries would support an operation like that due to expectation of privacy laws. However, each state and jurisdiction is different and the local laws need to be researched before continuing your installation. Some jurisdictions prevent private offices, break rooms and other areas from being recorded covertly even when common sense would suggest they are fair game. Recording audio also varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and can become a very sensitive legal issue. I suggest you first do the research on your own or with an outside legal counsel about local privacy laws. Often your own human resources, legal department or security management might shoot down the install based on their own misguided legal knowledge. When the time comes, benchmarking with your peers and showing supporting legal cases can help persuade your company to approve the install.

I call this “getting under the umbrella”. Even with all the research and legal findings backing your proper and successful install, not taking partnerships with upper management, legal or human resources can be devastating to your career. Always get someone above you to approve your covert actions. Should the case be sensitive, still partner with your General Legal Counsel or CEO and never approve covert surveillances alone. Although CCTV cameras are everywhere, companies are still sensitive to covert uses and you don’t want to be left out in the rain if something goes wrong.


With your covert setup approved and good notes collected about how you plan on installing the camera and DVR, it’s time to do a test run. Whether you are pulling cable, using wireless or even an IP camera, test your setup in a similar setting to the covert location. Measure out 25 to 50 feet of extra cabling, properly attach bnc or Ethernet connectors and power up your camera(s) and DVR. Murphy’s Law was definitely written for covert installs, so now is the time to fail in a controlled setting and learn from your mistakes. From a bad connector or a forgotten tool, to a camera not working because of the phase of the moons, many random things can go wrong. Let this be the time to problem solve vs. the middle of the night when RadioShack is closed.

Test Again

After a successful test, take apart your “setup”, rebuild and test again. Often times you only get one chance for the perfect covert installation. Use this free time to practice and test over and over again until you are comfortable with your equipment, the planned install and everything is working.


After all your hard work selecting a camera and DVR, sketching out the suspected crime scene and testing your bnc connectors until your fingers are sore, it’s time to install your camera. If you planned each step with great detail and tested your setup a few times this part should go smoothly. Install your camera and recording device in their selected locations, making sure not to disrupt the area, returning moved furniture, books, etc back to their original location. Double check for exposed cables, tools left behind and even foot prints on desk countertops (it happens). Now sit back, cross your fingers and hope for the best.

If you read this article hoping to find some magical trick to covertly install your camera completely of out of the suspect’s point of view and catch them red-handed, you just wasted your time. There is no magical trick or secret camera that you might see on an episode of NCIS. Instead the last three articles on Covert Investigations have centered around one common theme: planning. Without thoroughly planning your covert install—from the selection of your camera and DVR to the placement of its final location—the odds of successfully catching your bad guy drop to zero.

Brandon Gregg is a corporate investigations manager. His website is