Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Got the Surveillance Blues

I have a bit of a complaint to make, Dear Reader, and it concerns one of my most beloved of activities.


Now the complaint isn't really directed at anyone specfically, perhaps it is more of a disgruntlement towards the industry itself, or at least the general trends in regards to conducting surveillance operations.

Recently I canvassed a few other PIs around the world regarding their standard practices; typically, when conducting surveillance, how many operators did they routinely use?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, around a third stated they operated alone. Not necessarily because they wanted to but because this was the expectation of their clients.

And we're not talking about your standard douchebag client either, but insurance companies and the like. As far as they were concerned, surveillance on a mobile subject rarely needed to be more than a 1-person job.

Hmmmm. Really?

Granted, surveillance can be carried out by a lone operator, just like a single pilot can fly an Airbus A380 or one surgeon can carry out open heart surgery. However, the thing that all these activities have in common is that they are better performed, with greater liklihood of success, by a team.

Case in point, I did several days of surveillance for a business client recently where an employee was the subject of the investigation. The client wanted to know what their errant employee was up to since he wasn't staying on the job site. Knowing where the subject lived and his current worksite, and mindful of the client's nominal budget, I started out doing the job by myself.

I should have known better really.

Day One I started by positioning myself near the subject's residence. Some four uneventful hours later, the subject's vehicle departs and I follow him all the way into the city without any problems. Great! When we get to the worksite, the immediate problem is where to position myself as it is a small, quiet, cul-de-sac. I opt for the main road but, unfortunately, have to make a decision - will the subject depart towards or away from the city? I choose towards as the road is a main arterial route and traffic is ridiculously difficult to go against, and park-up accordingly.

Wrong choice.

Nope, after little more than 30 minutes on the job, the subject departs turning away from the city. Crap! By the time there is a gap in the traffic allowing me to do a U-turn, the subject is unsighted and there is a long (200 metres) queue of traffic between me and his last known position.

Naturally I drive around trying to reacquire the subject but it is a waste of time so call it quits for the day.

On Day Two I start by parking up at the end of the cul-de-sac, waiting for the subject to arrive at work. After a couple of hours waiting, there he is. Again, he spends less than an hour on-site before heading off again but this time I'm behind him as he turns toward the city. At the corner I give way to another vehicle which is now between us. No problem, a bit of cover is always useful.

But at the lights, which are yellow, the subject turns left instead of stopping. The car between us, however, decides not to go through the yellow light and comes to a halt with me stuck behind it. The subject is now out of sight.

By the time the lights changed (and that took a while as this is a major intersection) the subject was gone. Again, I drove a while trying to reacquire the subject but there were a number of possible main routes he could have taken (let alone the lesser) and I had no idea as to his possible destination. It certainly wasn't work-related. So I called it a day again.

Day Three I brought in Pedro. Having another set of eyes in another vehicle made all the difference in the world. Not only did we successfully follow the subject all day long, we also were able to 'bracket' him at one point where Pedro was in front of the subject, I was following. It could not have gone any smoother even with the subject's erratic behaviour where at one point we thought he was deliberately trying to shake us but we later realised that he was blythely unaware of our presence.

Lesson to be learnt is that there is so much more that can go wrong when trying to do a surveillance job by yourself. Yes, there were some particular circumstances that made this case a little more difficult (the area and traffic around the worksite) but I've yet to get a surveillance job where everything is 'perfect'. There are always going to be issues and difficulties you need to work around.

Now I don't mind doing a 1-person static surveillance (ie a 'stakeout') and once spent several weeks doing exactly that where there was no intention of going mobile.

Something else I found interesting was that there were several firms (notably UK-based) who did not conduct any surveillance with less than a 3-4 person team. If the client wasn't prepared to spring for a team, they'd turn the work down. One cited health and safety reasons (mainly safety) for not conducting surveillance singly - particularly when the subject may be conducting criminal activity.

Good point there!

Whereas our Australian cousins, on the other hand, mostly go it alone as a routine matter of course.

At the end of the day the clients set the budgets and the expectations. Many will see the stipulation for even a 2-person team as an attempt at price-gouging rather than an effort to maximise likelihood of success.

I don't know what the answer is but I suspect that the future will hold more of the same; tighter budgets, greater client expectations.


  1. Up here in Bangkok traffic is such a mess most of the time that vehicle pursuits almost always break down. I always tell the prospective client that vehicle pursuits in the city are only attempted as an absolute last resort.

    Case in point was from just a couple weeks ago. A prospect came to us on an infidelity matter and wanted the husband followed from work to meet the supposed girlfriend. I know the building, I know the road and I know that traffic will frankly suck there for the best part of three hours. Even having a follow car parked around the corner is worthless as it's a few hundred meters back. In Bangkok that can mean a 10 min ute wait or more until there's gap in traffic and you can ease out onto the main road. Hopeless.

    But not hopeless... given that we do a great number of cases where it's a foreign visitor as the subject, we see a lot of good old-fashioned foot pursuits, and spend a lot of time hopping on the Skytrain and subway. And indeed it's not uncommon to hop in a taxi and tell the driver "follow that cab!" Sometimes it's walking through a mall behind the subject for hours. Conversely the shortest foot pursuit I can recall doing was something less than 40 meters each way: hotel to go-go bars and then back to hotel with a bargirl.

    Generally given the costs of having a private vehicle here versus the terribly small percentage of the time it would be a real difference-maker, it's just not worth it. We'll hire a car instead on the rare occasion when it seems to be needed and that's an expense borne by the client.

    Up-country is another matter of course, but hiring a motorcycle for a few hundred baht (less than $10) a day is no hardship and that's just fine for the majority of cases where there's no extended highway travel involved.

    1. I think that Bangkok and most larger cities have their own unique constraints and conditions that make surveillance more challenging. And interesting.

      Then again, so do rural areas (although I'm not such a big fan).

  2. In Australia you are right the general rule is to go it alone, I have had the opportunity to work in many "two up" surveillance operations and find that with the right co-worker, you can achieve more in one day of intense observations as opposed to 3 days of losing the subject and finally getting some results on the 4th day!

    1. Yep, it's a false economy. Client thinks they are being 'cost effective' to have one surveillance operator follow the sub for 4 days, Usually because their guidelines (if they are an insurer or other such) stipulate at least consecutive 3 days of surveillance. I guess this is out of consideration of 'procedural fairness' - anyone could have a good day, but 3 in a row?

      However, the realities of conducting prolonged surveillance is that a one-up operator is just not suited to the task and too much is left to the vagaries of chance rather than planning and skill.