The Basics of Physical Surveillance Tactics

5 minute read

Posted by: Allen Hoffmann, JD

March 16, 2015

As discussed previously, much of the technological advancement in the LE world has helped to intensify bang for the buck in terms of resources. It used to be that observation and audio surveillance literally had to be conducted in person – cops would get access, for example, to an apartment across the wall, crack the door, and monitor comings and goings whilst trying to grab snippets of the dialogue going on. None of this was court admissible, naturally, it was intended to try to give the cops the upper hand through what is, in hindsight, a very crude and inefficient form of intelligence gathering. But technology is an amazing thing.

If you can install a covert, voice activated microphone in a few target premises, one guy can listen to and transcribe a whole bunch of targets’ conversations as they happen from the comfort of an office somewhere. No need to sit at a door all day hoping to hear what the perp across the hall mutters for 6 seconds as he opens the door to his buddy. Yes, vans are still used, but its not like the movies, and yes, people do still sit in cars – pro tip, a car pointed in the opposite direction to you, with head rests concealing heads on board, makes a great static observation post… just manipulate the rear view mirror. They can cajole, bully, intimidate or straight out bribe your neighbors if they want to watch you directly in an old school way if they think something urgent may pop up, or they can install a camera which can be remotely monitored, with your neighbors help and permission.

Optical surveillance, especially if we’re talking CCTV, means one private security guard or cop can monitor what might’ve previously required 20 sets of eyes and feet on the street simultaneously. Or, it could be installed in the false roof panel of an office, catching key strokes where the adversary is careful to check for hardware or software keystroke loggers on a regular basis. There are directional mics for listening in to conversations from a distance. There are GPS trackers for cars, and that horrible, horrible meta data which your phone spews whether you like or not is the digital equivalent to strapping a couple of marine flares to a multi-coloured hat with a propeller on it and walking down the street with a big orange flame and colored smoke showing where you are. If you are being targeted by interested adversaries, the last one will be the first step utilized to putting you in certain places at certain times in the course of an investigation – remember, you can get meta data without a warrant. From there, they may set up new static observation posts.

Then, of course, there are people who are aware of these kinds of tactics, and they do their best to circumvent them. For the slippery customer who leaves his phone at home/yanks the battery out and doesn’t drive his own (or for that matter, any other) car in which police may have managed to install a tracking device, actual old school physical surveillance is a highly resource intensive and expensive affair, which, unless results are forthcoming fast, or you are regarded a danger to the public, is unlikely to continue to be signed off. Whilst it’s a public service, LE works to a budget and must continually justify the deployment of resources to bureaucratic types higher up. Depending on how the police force works in your region or, indeed, part of the world, senior cops may have very limited front line experience and be more about number crunching and statistics than actual performance, and unless you’re a potential enemy of the state, if following you around in a fitted out VW van, or on foot, is not generating the results it is viewed it should, the operation will not continue very long.

Surveillance crews absolutely NEVER work alone – there’s always at least two to three working on a target, usually more. Its simple math – are you and the alleged activities you’re getting up to, for which evidential material is now actively being sought, and/or intelligence is being justified with a view to the employment if yet further still investigative tactics, actually worth paying three or more people for? For their meal breaks, potential over time?

Usually, its as simple as a car being two or three back from you, gently following to see if you do anything unusual – remember, if you’re going somewhere you go regularly already, they probably already know that from your meta data. A common tactic is known as the floating box – it’s an ethereal box of moving physical surveillance which stays around you using multiple vehicles. It starts at 3 vehicles, and increases substantially from there, depending on how worth-while you are. Rest assured, if this tactic is in use on you, you will not be able to shake it. Don’t waste your time. Just look for the ‘command’ vehicle which will be behind you, probably a few cars back, and simply not dropping off, no matter how weird your movements are. Thing you’ve shook him? You haven’t shook the rest of the team.

You mess with this for a few hours a day and take them on a scenic tour of places where people often conceal things, such as cemeteries, large sporting fields or lightly wooded land next to park areas, without any apparent purpose (take a book with you, perhaps, and just have a seat and relax), and the people who are often around you for not obvious reason are going to become apparent.

I can go on for hours on this topic, but the key things to remember are, vary your movements, don’t carry your phone and don’t use your car, and alter your time of day of movement if at all possible – teams may be working in shifts, and it may be the case that if you usually move during the day, a crew is not allocated at night, and viceversa. Draining your opponent’s stamina and resources can be as fun for you as it is annoying for them.

Updated: 2015-03-16