To ensure the integrity of covert installations, take precautions.
To ensure the integrity of covert installations, take precautions.

May 1, 1997 12:00 PM

In Search of Excellence by Tom Peters told us the 1990s would be a decade of information, with a price tag as never seen before. I don't think even Tom Peters could have envisioned how hard we now strive to gain information. We have tools that are so far beyond Dick Tracy's wrist radio that the day of the spy is upon us. What's worse, the spy could be our wife, husband, friend, neighbor or child.

I have been working with covert tactics since I was a young boy. When I was 10, I bought an old hearing aid for 10 cents at a garage sale. With some minor modifications, I was able to extend the microphone of the unit to any point in the house. Using pieces of telephone wire that I found below poles where connections were made, I wired every room in the house, undetected. With meticulous efforts, I would move my microphone according to what I thought would be the best listening vantage point of the day. It was exciting; it was risky; it brought a sweet sweat to my brow; it gave me a feeling of power unlike anything I had felt in my short life. My two older sisters didn't stand a chance. Then one day I heard a conversation between my parents. It wasn't the usual conversation. This one was quiet and intense. It changed my life forever and taught me to have great respect for the privacy of others. It also taught me there are some things better off unknown. The moral of the story is tha t covert fo r the sake of covert is not a reason to spy. We, as professionals, have a responsibility to ensure the proper use of the powerful covert tools that are available. Today, some cameras are smaller than the microphone I hid as a child, but the information is just as sensitive and potentially destructive.

So, what is covert surveillance all about? Overall, there are four aspects to it:

* equipment; * installation techniques; * legal; and * experience and common sense.

The last has to do with knowing when to shut down a job and walk away. Setting up the job and making sure whatever information you come up with is clean and usable takes experience and sound planning. If you are involved in this field, you will find there are times when you need to ask legal advice prior to setting up a job or disclosing information you have uncovered.

Need assessment The first step to any covert job is need assessment. Are covert cameras needed, or can a simpler solution to the problem be found? Just keep in mind that catching someone in the act on tape is good and might be useful, but the true key to covert surveillance is the followup. Part of every covert surveillance job is designing security to prevent a crime from being repeated.

In cases of theft or vandalism, it is always best to prosecute. This is primarily because asking a person to resign or leave does not cure the problem or act as a long-term deterrent. Some people refrain from prosecution for fear of adverse publicity. I usually point out that publicity about a company or business prosecuting a thief is not negative but rather shows customers the company is committed to fair business practices, starting inside its own house.

At any rate, discussions should take place quietly and away from the location if possible. This will prevent gossip around the office. For this reason, the covert security expert should have a second business card that lists him or her as working for someone other than a security or investigative type company. The name stays the same, but the business name changes to something outside the field, such as brain surgeon or exterminator. That way the receptionist is not tipped off. Additionally, phone messages will not stir up unnecessary speculation. During an initial interview, various alibis and excuses for the expert's presence on site can be established. Here, too, keep it simple. The cover should not become so complicated you have to think up stories on the spur of the moment - too much room for error. I have always found it easier to have two good covers established and practiced at all times. This way I can fit the need of the moment.

The second half of the initial interview is to determine true motives. Experts should avoid being sucked into the client's prejudices. Sometimes, the client will have such strong preconceived ideas about what is happening that you lose your perspective and go off in the wrong direction. Even the seasoned veteran is susceptible. I remember a story about an old woman who drove across the Mexican/American border for several weeks on a motor scooter. She had a box of sand tied to the back rail of the bike every time she crossed. One of the border guards decided she was up to no good and passed the word about his suspicions. Consequently, the border guards searched the box of sand that she carried each time she crossed the border. They were sure she was up to no good, but they couldn't find evidence of a crime. It turned out, the sand was a diversion to the fact that she was smuggling motor scooters across the border.

Don't blow your cover I remember a job I did some 18 years ago for a major insurance company. They had a very modern employee cafeteria with good prices. The problem was that during off hours, snack items were put on the counter and an open box for money was left standing alone - your basic honor system. Somewhere along the line, the box started coming up short $10 or $15 a week. The president of the company hired us to catch the thief in the act. His plan was simple. Install a covert camera, catch the perp, fire him and prosecute for shoplifting. He also believed he knew exactly who the thief was: the third shift janitor. How did he know? A simple deduction. The third shift janitor was paid minimum wage, employed by an outside contractor and had the most opportunity to steal from the box without being caught. There was no proof to substantiate the president's suspicion. It would have been easy, but dangerous, to assume him right.

Now, because installers do not always get to see the area of installation prior to doing the work, preconceived alibis can come in handy. It is always best to be able to view the area ahead of time. Obviously, it is also best to do the installation when no one is around. But you need to be prepared for surprise visits when you least expect them. So there I was, standing on a ladder in the middle of a cafeteria, camera in hand (above the ceiling) and a coaxial cable hanging down below the tiles. And the third shift janitor walked into the room to mop. Even though I had been told I would have four hours of uninterrupted time to work, I was prepared. First, I was wearing a generic pair of coveralls with no identification or patches. I also had a mask (the type sold at hardware stores for painters) hanging around my neck. Second, I had brought with me a four-gallon, pressure spray can and nozzle that I kept close to the base of my ladder. Whe n the janitor found me, I quickly pushed the camera deep er into the ceiling and said hello. I told him I was looking for a cockroach nest in the cafeteria area and that he could understand that the sensitivity of my job required no one know. It just wouldn't look good to the employees to think they were eating in an area where cockroaches roamed freely. He agreed and offered to keep his silence. I then suggested he not work in the area for the next few hours to prevent breathing fumes. He left and I had the night to myself. I did not mount the camera in the original area I had picked. I moved it over three tiles in case the janitor came back later. Even if the janitor told someone I had been there, he believed I had been spraying for bugs. This is part of being prepared during the installation of covert cameras.

At the end of the first week, we had revealed some very interesting information concerning the thefts. The second week proved equally fruitful and the client was ready to shut down the job and start nailing bodies to the wall. We convinced him, however, that a third week would supply the evidence needed to verify the first two weeks' work. This is an example of knowing when to shut down a job. Sometimes, it works out the opposite way and the job must be shut down early.

At the end of the day, the third shift janitor was vindicated completely. In fact, we had, on three different occasions, filmed him picking money up off the floor and putting it back in the box. Thank goodness we did not go with the president's preconceptions about who was stealing. The true thieves turned out to be three of the company's top executives. All three were released and prosecuted - a very gutsy move on the part of the president.

A final note on being prepared for getting caught in the act: A simple letter from the client is often the best defense. I have had some problems in this area in the past. I spent four hours in a police detention cell once, while they tried to book me on breaking and entering into a local fast food joint. The fact that I had keys to the restaurant did not matter. It was something about my being in the place at 1 in the morning that had them alarmed. In a small town, local police often know the patrons and workers at small establishments, and much to my dismay, that was the case. I could not tell the police what I was doing or I might have blown the cover of the case. I had taken some minor precautions, however, and I had the manager's home number for them to call. Unfortunately, the manager had forgotten what was going on that night and was at a party. Once he got home, he verified our predetermined story and I was let go with an apology. From that time on, I carried written letters of authorization with me.

Keeping your mouth shut It is a small world we live in, and word travels fast where covert activity is concerned. I think part of the explanation is everyone wants to be involved in a good mystery. When working with covert surveillance, you have no friends and no one can be trusted with information regarding who, what, when, where and why. I learned this early in my career in a case that had been completed only the week before. I was having lunch with a friend and told him about the job we had just wrapped up. Three weeks later, I was called on the carpet about leaking information that wound its way back to the site 50 miles away. I never slipped again.

On another job, the president of the company I worked for ran into the president (call him Joe) of a client company. Our president asked Joe whether he was satisfied with the job we were doing. Joe's surprise was immense. Seems a manager of his company had set up the job without Joe's knowledge. Three days later, Joe returned to his office and started inquiring about the job. This got people looking around, and the cameras were eventually found and destroyed by angry employees. The job was shut down without the information needed to prove the case.

Leave as quietly as you came All equipment should be removed in the same manner it was installed. That means, quietly, after hours, without witnesses. It is also advisable that the equipment be removed prior to disclosing any video tapes to employees or management. This will keep your equipment from being damaged or destroyed by angry people who have been terminated or disciplined as a result of the covert job, and it will allow you to return if the need arises.

Editor's note: This is the first in a series of three articles. The next article will discuss the types of equipment needed to work covertly, and the final article will deal with some of the legal aspects of covert surveillance as they pertain to the U.S.

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