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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 probably the most effective intelligence functional with which to integrate.

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. Investigative physical surveillance is carried out in myriad different eventualities. However, all of these have one key factor in common – the requirement to inextricably tie surveillance activities to specific intelligence requirements and investigative priorities.

It is worth highlighting at this point that there are certain key factors that crosscut the way we do 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 subject. The second is often overlooked; remaining covert to third party – this means remaining undetected by members of the public, non-disruptive and respectful of privacy. These kind of 360-degree security and risk considerations are the key building blocks of ensuring that surveillance (and the surveillance team) can operate effectively.

To achieve this kind of security 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 hugely variable 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 (OPs) and counter-surveillance designed to identify hostile surveillance targeting our clients. All of this is the kind of thing that can only be achieved through physical surveillance assets. However, in the approach we take, as with everything, this relies on an approach to delivering network and environment understanding to maximise the benefit that any physical activity provides.

Physical surveillance, then, is one of the most direct ways to collect information, forming a key part of the "collection" element of the intelligence cycle. Ultimately it allows us to gain further clarity. All of this helps us form intelligence analysis and investigative strategies that are as accurate as possible and backed by tangible insight.

Physical surveillance helps us add value in ways that other forms of intelligence gathering cannot by allowing us to work less from assumptions, predictions and forecasts, and more from things we can observe; something that is an investigative gamechanger. For our clients, this means they are as informed as possible before making decisions – a key part of what we do. Surveillance is a 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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