The Travis County Sheriff’s Office of Environmental Enforcement Division in Austin, Texas, gave five staff members what would seem to be a Herculean task — monitoring the booming county for illegal dumping of trash and chemicals. What would seem impossible became manageable with the installation of what appeared to be utility enclosures on electric poles near several dump sites. What looked like utility enclosures were, however, actually Watchboxes from SuperCircuits containing powerful low-light cameras with high-end optics coupled with a digital video recorder (DVR). The systems enabled Travis County to monitor dump sites remotely and covertly and to be alerted instantly when activity occurs. The installation of the camera systems has already resulted in several successful investigations.
Covert camera systems like the one used in Travis County can also be valuable tools for corporate and institutional security applications. Covert video technology has more than proven its worth over the years in applications ranging from “nanny cams” to hidden cameras used to catch and identify shoplifters.
Incorrect concerns about legalities and privacy, and a misconception that the technology is difficult to use, have kept many businesses from including covert surveillance in their security management arsenal. It is a missed opportunity that costs businesses millions of dollars in preventable losses.
Benefits of Covert Surveillance
Traditional security cameras may need backup in performing their mission, especially as it relates to protecting against employee theft. A company’s employees may know the locations of visible cameras, and it can be possible to keep out of their range. Working in concert with traditional video surveillance, covert video can be placed where dishonest employees believe they are free from view.
Covert surveillance can also enable managers to view employee behavior to quietly address non-productive work habits without impacting a company’s general culture. An additional benefit is to monitor customer service. Covert video enables managers to see things as they really are and to use the information to improve training and hiring procedures to boost customer service standards.
Upscale restaurants, libraries, museums and even retail stores often want to minimize the evident presence of video cameras without losing the protection that video offers. The clear answer is covert video, which provides all the benefits without impacting ambiance.
Legalities and the Expectation of Privacy
Covert video is completely legal, and subject to the same privacy laws that restrict traditional camera systems. Simply put, cameras cannot be placed in areas where people have a reasonable expectation of privacy, such as restrooms, dressing rooms or locker rooms. If the area in question is a public space — such as a sales floor, production line, warehouse, parking lot or cash office — it is absolutely acceptable to use covert (or visible) video cameras. The only caveat is that specific laws can vary from state to state and it is a good idea to consult legal counsel if there is any question.
However, it should be mentioned that there is a concern about the use of microphones in a covert application. Current interpretations of Federal wiretapping laws prevent the manufacture, sale, purchase and possession of any covert device that includes microphones, with the only exception granted for law enforcement and government entities.
Finally, be aware that the State of North Carolina has laws preventing the sale, manufacture and use of safety devices that have been modified, which makes it illegal to use covert video products that are disguised as smoke detectors, exit signs, fire sprinklers, etc. Although North Carolina is believed to be the only state with such laws, it’s a good idea to check your own state laws.
Many businesses do not use covert security cameras because they feel their employees might perceive these as a violation of privacy. This is certainly a reasonable thought — but one that is not supported by formal studies and/or surveys.
In fact, the vast majority of people have a reaction similar to the answer given by one hotel gift shop employee to this question: “Would you be offended to learn that throughout the gift shop there were hidden security cameras watching you?” The response was, “No. As a matter of fact I would like that. It would make me feel even more secure. After all, there are already cameras in here. And if something did occur or something went missing, then I know my boss wouldn’t suspect me.”
Planning A Covert Camera System
When planning a covert surveillance application to address specific activity, it is helpful to consider the following questions:
1. Who are the suspects? Is the greatest concern visitors, customers or employees? In the latter case, it would be necessary to maintain complete silence about where equipment is hidden.
2. What is the activity? Does it happen quickly (such as an employee stealing money from the till)? The answer points to what kind of recorder to use and how much recording time is needed.
3. When is the activity occurring? If it happens at night, special pinhole cameras can be used to see in extremely low light levels — complete darkness to the human eye. Additional light can be added with infrared illuminators.
4. Where is the activity occurring, and where will the camera be in reference to the area of concern? Special telephoto micro-lenses may be needed to gather small but important details.
5. What are the goals in using covert video? A single camera can identify someone at a certain place and time. But if the objective is to collect sufficient evidence to prosecute an offender, multiple cameras may be needed to capture important elements of a crime.
While gathering details about the mission at hand, consider what should be used to contain the camera. In other words, what kind of article concealing a camera could be introduced into the environment without attracting attention? In some environments, almost anything new would be out of place. If options are limited, look for existing fixtures that could house equipment, such as posters, paintings, furniture, draperies, ceiling tile, etc.
Wireless video transmitting devices are often used to make installation of covert video fast and easy; however, some environments may have radio frequency (RF) interference, or the building may have thick concrete walls that make sending wireless signals difficult. If this is the case, look for a “3R” location — for receiving, recording and repeating. In office applications, broom closets are a perfect location. Other good 3R locations include a void behind ceiling tiles, or better yet, a desk drawer that can be locked.
It may be desirable to repeat the signal — or to set up a system that sends a second signal that can be monitored remotely without requiring access to the area of concern or the 3R location itself, which can raise suspicion that the area is being watched. Repeating the information can be as simple as using another wireless video transmitting device that leap-frogs to a final destination, or using an IP video server connected to a LAN that allows for easy monitoring.
Finally, consider funneling opportunities. When a traditional video system is in place, leaving a dark corner or other area free from visible cameras is a tactic to “funnel” activity to where a covert system can be installed.
Whether an environment is suitable for a ready-made solution, or if a customized solution is needed, there are plenty of technology choices to serve any covert surveillance need.
• Ready-to-install covert video: Covert video options are available as wired or wireless devices, pre-packaged in many different forms. For wired devices, consider something that people naturally expect to have wires, such as exit signs, flood lights, fire alarms, PIR sensors, loud speakers, ceiling speakers, motion lights or computer speakers. For wireless devices, consider items that normally use 120 volts of power, such as clock radios, air purifiers or boom boxes. The covert surveillance gear inside the enclosure shares the power pulled by the device. The installation of a wireless device consists merely of setting it down and plugging it in. The video signal is then sent to a receiver, where it can be monitored and recorded remotely. There are also self-contained surveillance devices that have a camera, power and recorder all in one package.
• Pinhole cameras: Able to capture images through a small pinhole, these cameras come in various shapes and sizes. The most important element to consider is the lens, which can either be a flat pinhole (best used for thinner materials such as paper and fabric) or a conical pinhole (whose cone-shaped lenses require that they be embedded in thicker materials such as drywall, drop-tile ceilings or cardboard). These lenses require a hole less than 1/16-in. diameter.
• Recorders: Traditional DVRs should be chosen based on resolution, frame rate, available camera channels and remote monitoring capabilities. Miniature versions — so-called “micro DVRs” — can be smaller than a pack of cigarettes, but can record at full D1 resolution at 30 frames per second. For most micro DVRs, recording capacity is limited by battery life but can be augmented with AC power supplies for indefinite run time. Built-in video motion detectors trigger recording, which can be exported via a USB and/or SB Card. Micro DVRs can lie dormant for weeks and only record when activity occurs. Also, hybrid DVRs and NVRs (Network Video Recorders) can reach out across networks to record video from IP cameras.
• Wireless: The most popular devices used for covert applications are FCC Part 15 approved, which means that no license is required for use. The range of these devices is between a 300-foot and 1-mile line of sight. If more range is needed, other devices can offer more power and are FCC approved under Part 90, but will require a FCC license for use. The two most popular frequency options today are 2.4GHz and 5.8GHz, both of which provide ample range and plenty of bandwidth to transmit high-resolution video signals. Wireless video in an area should be on a different frequency than the local Wi-Fi operation. When considering range, it is best to cut the line-of-sight range at least in half for non-line-of-sight applications. If there are obstructions such as concrete walls, the range may be less.
• Lighting: Infrared illumination can augment covert video and is invisible to the human eye; however, not all infrared illuminators are undetectable. The frequency of choice for a covert application should be 940nm, which is so far out of the human eye’s spectral response that it emits no visible signature (i.e., no red glow).
• Power: Battery power is great for body-worn applications, and for temporary placement of fixed covert gear, but the finite run time will require visits to the camera to swap out batteries, which can increase the chance of discovery. Batteries are available that offer a run time anywhere between 8 hours and several days. A duplicate battery enables one to be charging while the other is in use. Alternative power, such as solar cells, are highly visible but can sometimes be introduced as if they are being used for another item that is perceived as benign. For rural applications, camouflaged and flexible solar cells are available. They blend into wooded areas and can be wrapped around the limbs of trees. For remote applications, hydrogen fuel cell and propane generators are also available — they are small, quiet and some can even be buried.
As more and more businesses understand the unique capabilities of covert video to solve internal security problems, we can expect the demand (and social acceptance) of covert video to increase. Younger generations are seeing covert video as an unbiased advocate. As for the bad guys, their days are numbered.
Jake Lahmann is vice president of technology for SuperCircuits. Prior to joining SuperCircuits, Mr. Lahmann spent six years in federal law enforcement, including two years of drug enforcement in San Diego.