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A Covert Video Primer

Know the rules of shooting covert video.

In the November 2010 edition of Government Video, editor JJ Smith detailed some of the cool covert video recoding equipment available today (“Covert Video Records Lawbreakers, Spies”).

Wristwatch camera has a microphone, 8GB of storage, and the watch works. by James Careless

They include cameras hidden in “Exit” signs, electric utility boxes and even the lid of an actual spring water bottle. And that’s not all: covert video cameras and camcorders are also available inside wristwatches, ballpoint pens, smoke detectors, cordless phones, calculators, teddy bears—virtually anything.

It is easy to see how covert technology could be of use to government video professionals; not just for law enforcement, but internal office security, remote site supervision and even “reality TV” productions for training/promotional purposes.

But before a wristwatch camera—available for $59.99 at—starts recording, anyone shooting covert video would be wise to first know the rules of covert video.


The first question that needs to be answered before firing up the wristwatch camcorder is, “why am I shooting this video?” The reason that needs to be answered is because there are different rules governing covert video, depending on whether you are shooting it as a private individual/business, or on behalf of a government agency.

“If you are doing it for yourself or a private business, there are not too many rules,” says Grant Fredericks, who is one of North America’s most respected forensic video experts. Fredericks is a former police officer who now owns and operates Forensic Video Solutions in Spokane, Wash.

“Generally, you are allowed to use hidden cameras at home and at work, subject to privacy laws. For instance, you cannot put hidden cameras in change rooms and bathrooms,” he said. In addition, there are also 13 states—Alabama, Arkansas, California, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, South Dakota and Utah—that do not allow surveillance video to be shot in private locations without the consent of those being watched.

In contrast, covert video shot on behalf of a government agency falls under tougher federal and state laws; the latter of which vary from state to state. The rule of thumb is this: Areas where people are in “public view” are generally considered legally-acceptable places for shooting covert video. “However, this only applies to video,” Fredericks warns. “To capture audio legally anywhere, you need to have a warrant. And you need to have this warrant before you start your surveillance—especially if you intend to use the video in court.”


Be aware that any video shot could end up being used in legal proceedings (even if it is to fight a nuisance suit filed by someone who resents being recorded in public view). Therefore, it is good to know what the local laws are governing the storage of surveillance footage.

“In most states, having an accurate digital copy of the original footage, such that it can be forensically shown not to have been tampered with, is good enough,” Fredericks says. “Again, you need to check before you start shooting. And make sure that you store a full copy of the raw footage, not an edited version. It could be argued that the footage you cut out could have proven the innocence of the person being observed, whether or not that was actually the case,” he adds.

In addition, it is important to keep careful written records (e.g., audit trail) of the steps taken to capture and record the covert video, says Elliott Goldstein, a Canadian lawyer who has authored a book entitled, Visual Evidence: A Practitioners Manual. Goldstein, a Canadian authority, suggests that such records should document the obtaining of authority (judicial warrant or court authorization); list the equipment used (camera, lens, set up and calibration, etc.); identify the media (DVR, DVD, videotape, flash card, hard disk, etc.) and format (e.g., JPEG, MPEG, etc.) used to capture of the images; and document the chain of custody of the evidence from the time the recording was made until it was brought to court.

If covert video is enhanced (e.g., to increase contrast, to remove blur and sharpen focus, correct color, etc.) then both the original source video (the “Before” video) and the enhanced version (the “After” video) must be provided to the judge to determine admissibility. Goldstein calls that the “Before and After” rule. Lastly, remember to properly safeguard any evidence admitted in court, should there be an appeal. All covert video exhibits admitted into evidence must be retained for the proper statutory period, with the length of storage depending upon the state rules regarding exhibits, or any court order.


There is no doubt that higher quality video makes for better evidence than low-resolution video. Highresolution video shows more detail than grainy footage, allowing for more confident identification of the people in the frame and their activities. However, low-resolution video can still lead to convictions. “In fact, video quality doesn’t affect the question of admissibility in court, as long as the image is good enough to be discernable,” Fredericks says.

“Even if the suspect is wearing a mask, we can often still identify him by his clothing and height. So although higher resolution is always preferable, it is not a must.”


As noted earlier in this article, covert video cameras come in a range of shapes and sizes. A look online at—the shopping site linked to PI (Private Investigator) Magazine—reveals covert cameras hidden in fake rocks, clocks, fans, AC power adaptors, lamps, facial tissue box covers, key chains, earphones, cigarette lighters, baseball caps, broaches, buttons hardcover books, and sunglasses. Some cameras come with DVRs, while others transmit the video wireless to a nearby receiver.

Deciding what kind of covert equipment to use depends on the nature of the operation. If the recording is to be in a fixed location—such as an office or lunchroom—it makes sense to choose an item that would not look out of place, and whose “cover function” actually works. A camera-equipped radio or clock, are thus good choices; a baseball cap or fake rock are not.

If the recording is to be made on the move, or if retrieving the device is a problem, then a camera-equipped watch or pen could be appropriate. That said, thought must be given to how the camera is to be placed during the shoot. A camera watch may work if the shooter can casually sit with his wrist turned towards the subject; a pen if the shooter is wearing a suit jacket and can face the pen forward in his chest pocket.

When shooting outdoors where moisture is an issue, it is wise to choose a device that is either weather-hardened, or capable of being protected in something that can withstand the rain. A “tie cam” could be well suited for such a shoot, as could a button camera.

Recording video directly onto the covert device, or to a wired recorder nearby, provides for a secure transmission path and avoids the chance that someone will intercept a wireless video feed. On the other hand, wireless feeds make sense in situations where retrieving the recorder is difficult, or the video needs to be seen live.


Covert video can be a potent weapon in catching wrongdoers in the act. It can also clarify who the innocent really are, thus allowing for fairer and more efficient prosecutions. If an agency has a need for covert video surveillance, be sure to check the law first before proceeding. It is also wise to ensure that approval for covert video comes from the top. That way, the legality and admissibility of the evidence will be beyond reproach.