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Mythbusting - Physical Surveillance 101

In our previous insight into VPNs and Virtual Machines, we discussed how we use these tools as a baseline in everything we do when it comes to conducting online investigations. Sometimes, though, there’s no substitute for physical investigations. Physical surveillance is often one of the most integral, yet misunderstood aspects of an investigation, and so in this piece we are going to outline how and why we use it, and where it helps add value.

Given its sensitive nature, the detail of tradecraft surrounding physical surveillance cannot be discussed in any real depth when it comes to the nuts and bolts. However, the principles behind it, how it integrates with intelligence and investigative architecture, and its various uses can and should be discussed. As much as anything else, this is in order to dispel some popular myths and misconceptions surrounding physical surveillance and how it works.

Surveillance 101 – the “private investigator” does not exist! Notions of a man in a long coat watching a person or building through eye holes in a newspaper are an anachronistic misrepresentation of a complex discipline. Surveillance is a collection tool that requires a great deal of patience, professionalism and experience to deliver correctly; but done correctly and proportionately, is an unparalleled source of unique insight.

Vitally, surveillance is always used in concert with other mechanisms, and requires a backend processing (analytical) capability to fuse information gained from a surveillance team with wider context, and to feed start points for future activity back into the surveillance team. Indeed, of all the traditional collection disciplines, physical surveillance is, in a lot of circumstances, probably the most effective collection asset to integrate into the intelligence picture.

For us, many of these integrated investigations which leverage effective surveillance are derived from initial OSINT investigations which articulate specific gaps and provide initial understanding. Surveillance activities can then be allocated to specific intelligence requirements and investigative priorities in order to fill those gaps and provider a more comprehensive picture of the subject.

It is worth highlighting at this point that there are certain key factors that crosscut the way we carry out any kind of surveillance; indeed, we will discuss how the same tactics or similar tactics can be used for “defensive” purposes shortly. The first may seem obvious but cannot be overstated; remaining covert (remaining undetected) to the subject. The second is often overlooked; remaining covert to third parties – this means remaining undetected by members of the public, as well as being non-disruptive and respectful of privacy. These are some of the key building blocks of ensuring that surveillance (and the surveillance team) can operate effectively.

To achieve the required level of security for a surveillance team we use a variety of tools, but in today’s tech-enabled world, this involves leveraging and understanding technology to minimise the exposure of the team. Whilst elements of tradecraft allow the team to remain as well hidden as possible, it is a truism that reducing the exposure of a team on the ground drastically decreases its chances of being identified over time. This integrated technical approach includes enduring online monitoring through our analytical team – fusing OSINT and surveillance into a formidable package.

Beyond the more “offensive” world of going out and looking for information, surveillance also has extensive, slightly more creative, applications in the “defensive” domain. In the past, this has included surveillance tasks providing supply chain assurance through covert escort (and linking this intelligence to wider OSINT work), protective surveillance through the establishment of covert observation posts and counter-surveillance designed to identify hostile surveillance targeting our clients.

Physical surveillance helps us add value in ways that other forms of intelligence gathering cannot, sometimes allowing us to work less from assumptions, predictions and forecasts, and more from things we can observe, which can be an investigative gamechanger. For our clients, this means their decisions can be made from a position of information superiority. Surveillance is one way of removing as much of the doubt and risk associated with qualitative analysis as possible, and delivering quantifiable insight that gives our clients the edge from the boardroom to the courtroom and everywhere in between.


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