Surveillance Camera – what are the options?

When people ask me about a surveillance camera, they can have two different meanings.  covert surveillance cameraThe first, is a hidden surveillance camera (also called covert surveillance camera).  This is when the area or person viewed is generally unaware of the camera.  The other meaning is when someone wants a camera that is part of a camera system.  There are pros and cons for each of these, and they both support private investigation at times.  Since I get so many questions on this, I thought it was a great topic to discuss.

Covert Surveillance Camera

Since the most common request in the private investigation world is covert surveillance, I’ll review that first.  The hidden camera is very enticing, especially to the person who is trying to catch someone else doing something.  Whether it’s a cheating spouse, neighbor kids vandalizing your property, capturing proof that the neighbor’s dog is sneaking into the backyard, or hundreds of other examples, covert surveillance in enticing.  However, there are some problems with covert surveillance.

  1. covert surveillance camera penCovert Surveillance is intended to be a temporary solution (unless you pay a fortune for the higher quality products). This also means that most covert surveillance is a lower quality than a professionally installed system.  Of course, this continues to improve and may not be a problem for you if you do not need the highest resolution, highest quality, etc.
  2. Not all situations can use a covert camera- by law. Most states, and some federal laws, restrict where cameras can take pictures and where video can record or stream.  Since this varies by state, you will need to check your state laws.  Here are some general rules: bathrooms are almost always off limits; bedrooms tend to have high restrictions; some states (or local jurisdictions) might also restrict recording your neighbor’s property; most public areas are “fair game”.
  3. Many states restrict who can install cameras. This is where the DIY (do-it-yourself) network has become quite popular.  Some states require a special license and/or certification to install cameras.  This usually restricts a private investigator from installing a covert surveillance camera in your home or business.  Some alarm security companies can install cameras if you do not want to do it yourself, but if you want covert you will usually have to find a company that specializes or has experience specifically in covert (many of the national companies DO NOT have the experience you want to install a covert surveillance camera).
  4. Smart phones have excellent quality and usually good enough storage that you can usually use your cell phone instead of investing in a specific covert surveillance camera.

Now that I’ve covered the problems, let’s explore some benefits.

  1. Covert cameras are a great way to capture “real” information. For example, the scientific community might use covert surveillance to record an experiment or document a case study without having participants change their normal patterns because they know a camera is there.  This same concept applies to humans in any situation- family members in the home, neighbors that are aware of the camera (they might make funny faces at it a lot to see what you do), etc.
  2. For those who are safety conscious and want to implement covert surveillance cameras to document potential crime, this is clearly a lot less noticeable than a regular camera sitting out hidden surveillance camerain the open and advertising the location of the camera. Vandalism opportunities are also much lower for a covert surveillance camera instead of a traditional camera.
  3. Considering that many covert surveillance cameras are created to be mobile, this provides excellent opportunities to capture video in locations where you do not want someone to know you are capturing video.
  4. Covert cameras can be found in just about anything these days, as long as a battery or a plug are available to power them. Some creative examples include: camera inside a wall adapter, camera, glasses, in a fake water bottle, light bulb, clocks, toys, power outlets, and a lot more!
  5. Let’s be honest- covert surveillance cameras are so much sexier than a cell phone! Most people I meet are intrigued by the idea of a covert camera just because it is fun, and they are not even interested in private investigation.

Traditional Surveillance Camera

A “traditional” surveillance camera is often called CCTV.  Since I’m not an expert in this area (I dabble and have a good friend in this market), I will not go into detail.  I do know that CCTV is no longer the most reliable terminology for camera systems these days because they are rarely a “closed circuit” with advances in streaming over the internet.  Almost every camera system on the DIY market allows access via the internet for mobile/remote viewing.  When building a custom camera system, you can implement a DVR (that’s the storage part) that does not attach to the internet if you want true CCTV.  I have a camera system at my house (you would be amazed the sounds that cats can make) and use a remote option to check and see when people are parked in my driveway (which is behind my gate…so it should be someone I know and allowed in to the gate).  These are beneficial for permanent uses, and generally most people do not even notice there is a camera if you get a good installer (know your laws and check to see if you have to notify people that a camera is in use…it’s a grey area for the most part, but if your jurisdiction requires you to place a notice- place that notice).  Here are a few things to consider.

Traditional Surveillance Camera

  1. 99% of traditional surveillance camera systems do not include audio. This is mostly due to regulations on recording audio, and especially audio and video at the same time.  I suspect these laws are a little behind the time considering the new cell phone video revolution and how it is NOT illegal to record video and audio at the same time for your cell phone or other mobile devices (except in situations where video is illegal- like bathrooms).
  2. Most of the time your camera systems come in sets- usually the number of cameras that fit the DVR. You can have less cameras, so an 8 camera capable DVR and only put 6 cameras, but most companies will sell you at least 4 cameras because most DVR systems are equipped for 4 cameras (and suppliers will give kid discounts, making this the most cost effective combination).
  3. These systems are meant to be permanent- so slapping one on your body to go record something is not really feasible. I guess it’s possible if you get creative, but I cannot imagine any situation where that ends well.
  4. These do often allow a higher resolution, quality, or better features than a covert surveillance camera for a similar cost (of course, this changes almost by the minute, so shop around).

How does a PI use a surveillance camera?

This really depends on the PI and the type of job.  I want to take the best quality pictures and provide the best “proof” for a client.  This usually means a good camera with different types of Private Investigation Caselenses, and less covert surveillance.  However, there are plenty of opportunities for me to get surveillance in a covert fashion for jobs where I am trying to catch a person doing something they shouldn’t.  A good example of this is an employee that has filed a worker’s comp claim and had a doctor sign off that they cannot do something physical such as bending over or climbing ladders.  It is very hard to sit outside someone’s house all day and wait for them to leave and catch them doing the act their doctor claims they can’t.  Additionally, pictures do not tell enough of the story for an employer to officially catch the employee in fraud.  Video is best, and the way the video is captured will vary based on the situation.  For example, let’s say I am following my subject and they meet up with someone at a restaurant.  If it’s more of a McDonald’s, then I’m going to use my cell phone because that’s completely normal.  If I go to a high-end restaurant (after a quick change of clothes), I might opt for something a little more covert like eye-glasses that I can place on the table or wear as I need.  I might still use my cell phone, but not as obviously as I could at McDonald’s (I have free reign over where I go in McDonald’s, but I am more suspicious if I am trying to get a specific vantage point in a restaurant that seats people).  Ultimately, a PI aims to have as many different resources available to them to capture and document information that can document the information necessary for the paying client.

So where do I get a surveillance camera?

I like this site for covert surveillance gear.  They have a lot of different options, different qualities, and different price points.

For traditional surveillance camera systems, I recommend a LOCAL company that doesn’t sell off the shelf.  If you want DIY systems, Costco usually carries a fairly decent option for a price point that is DIY.  They don’t usually bring in the cheapest options, but do find better options for lower prices.  Most electronic stores will carry some sort of DIY system, but I have yet to find one that offers a quality similar to what you can find with a custom system that will also last the length of time it is worth.

-The Private I on Surveillance Camera – what are the options?