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Covert Video Records Law Breakers, Spies

Above: Exit sign camera, ideal for placing near remote doors where no other video cameras are deployed. Photo courtesy of Supercircuits, Inc.
From recording drug deals in high-crime areas, to catching corrupt officials seeking bribes, to tracking foreign spies and even documenting the activities of “bad apples” at work, covert video plays a vital role in all of those scenarios and is so effective that a major American city police department is increasing its use of “undetectable” cameras to fight crime.

by J.J. Smith

The primary goals for using covert video technology is to identify people, events and actions, says H. Keith Melton, an advisor to the U.S. intelligence community and a professor at the Centre for Counterintelligence and Security Studies in Alexandria, Va. By virtue of being “covert”, such surveillance technology continues to have a wide range of applications, from counterintelligence to catching common criminals, he said.

For example, the 10 Russian “long-term, deepcover” spies apprehended in June 2010 used to meet at a White Plains, N.Y. rail station because sections of the station were not under traditional video surveillance. However, the Federal Bureau of Investigation became aware of the operatives use of the White Plains station, and installed covert video throughout the facility, and those cameras recorded Christopher Metsos pass $300,000 to Richard Murphy (whose real name is Vladimir Guryev), said Melton, who is also on the board of directors for the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C.

Briefcase camera used during the 1970s and 1980s. Photo courtesy of the International Spy Museum CATCHING CRIMINALS

Using covert video to catch a cell of espionage agents is an event that does not occur often, and covert video is more likely to be used to record lawbreakers, which is why Chicago’s police department is installing “undetectable cameras” throughout high-crime areas of the city. Like the spies in New York, criminals in Chicago are aware of areas that are not covered by police video surveillance, says Police Superintendent Jody Weis. Therefore, the city is going to deploy covert video cameras in those areas, said Weis, who will not divulge the types of cameras being used.

Law enforcement routinely keeps a secret the covert video equipment it is using because “there are lives at stake,” said Jake Lahmann, vice president of technology for Supercircuits Inc. of Texas, a manufacturer of security and hidden cameras, as well as security camera systems. For that reason, Supercircuits produces two catalogues, one for the commercial market, and a second strictly for law enforcement. That is to ensure “the bad guys don’t find out what’s available and the strategies used,” he added.

In addition, while not providing details, Lahmann said while stationary covert cameras might be deployed in a specific area, they might also be installed in vehicles, or on a law enforcement officer, and that helps determine how it is the camera is disguised. The video camera’s disguise is based on how the camera is going to be used; how it is going to be placed; and the type of environment in which it is going to be deployed. “If a covert camera is being inserted into a more affluent neighborhood, the disguise that might work in a high-crime area might stick out and not match the environment,” he said. “There’s no one perfect disguise that we have off the shelf,” law enforcement and government agencies are questioned about the environment the camera is going into, and the item is custom built for that application, he said.

Electric box camera contains a wide-angle, day/night, super low light camera inside. Photo courtesy of Supercircuits, Inc. A typical scenario in which covert video is used to record wrongdoing, is “the hotel scenario,” Lahmann said. For some reason, criminals seem to feel comfortable conducting business in a hotel room. In that situation, cameras can be disguised as smoke detectors, clocks, electric outlets and phone outlets.

Among those who conduct criminal activities within a hotel room seems to be corrupt officials and politicians. “Corrupt officials always seem surprised to find that their unlawful activities have been recorded,” Melton added.


In addition, following an arrest, suspects have been known to talk about their crimes while sitting in the back of a patrol car. The strategy used is to place two suspects in a police vehicle outfitted with a hidden camera and leave them alone for a while.

Covert video is also being used in interrogation rooms and the typical setup involves two disguised cameras deployed at different angles and focused on the suspect. As with the hotel scenario cameras can be disguised as smoke detectors, clocks and electric outlets. There are several interrogation room video systems on the market, many of which still use video cassette recorders, but they contain the option to copy a tape to disc. In addition, systems do not have editing systems—which is important to show that a suspects’ words have not been altered—and datetime generators are standard. Since what the suspect says is vitally important, interrogation rooms should be outfitted with sound absorbing material because a room’s “echo” can distort the conversation.

Water bottle camera has real water on the top and bottom and contains a batter powered 1/3” Sony Super HAD CCD chipset that produces 380 lines of color resolution and 0.5 lux low light rating. Photo courtesy of Supercircuits, Inc. ROOTING OUT BAD APPLES

“Government offices have security needs, and there are benefits to covert video in a work situation; the key benefit is rooting out your bad apples,” Lahmann said. Any institution today, from a retail outlet to a government agency that deals with the public on a daily basis, like the motor vehicle department, has traditional video surveillance, he said. Enter “into an organization and you’ll see cameras, and (the) employees of those organizations know where the cameras are,” he said.

If some employees are engaged in criminal activities, or even non-criminal activities that are worthy of dismissal, they are going to go where those cameras are not located, Lahmann said. “That’s where covert comes in. Put up covert cameras in the areas where there are no traditional video cameras, and the person might believe he or she is getting away with some activity, but it would be captured on video. Such people can remain in an organization for a long time, and at public agencies it can be more than just an issue of pilfering, it can be a security risk, he said.


The states of the art in commercial covert video equipment are devices that can be left in a room and record everything that goes on in that room, Lahmann said. In addition, those devices can be self-contained with their own power source and be set to record only when there is motion in the room. Recordings can be stored in the device for later retrieval, and once it is retrieved the data can be downloaded to any laptop, he said. Installing those devices typically consists of no more effort than “slapping it on the wall,” he added.

Furthermore, the most “James Bondlike” of those devices can wirelessly transmit the recorded video. Cell phone companies like Sprint or Verizon, with their “3G” data circuits, have made it “pretty easy” to transmit video from one location to another. “It can be sent to a laptop in real time, or to a phone,” Lahmann said. Getting such video in real time is a bonus, along with never having to go back to the place where it was deployed. “You can retrieve the recording remotely, without ever having to reenter the establishment to retrieve the device,” he said.