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Spy Gear

Modern surveillance tools use the newest technology to catch crooks on the sly.

October 01, 2004  |  by Bob Davis

Since September 11, 2001, the development of new electronic surveillance techniques and equipment has been in overdrive. Fueled by a national desire to make our homeland safe for our citizens, the surveillance industry has sprung to life to supply law enforcement agencies with an almost endless array of electronic gadgets.

Whether it's for watching, listening, tracking, documenting, or recording, there's someone who can build it if you'll buy it. But before you go out and start spending all those dollars, do your due diligence.

Technology has taken huge leaps over the last few years, and it's important to make sure you're getting the right equipment for the task at hand. Remember, surveillance equipment used under the proper circumstances can be a force multiplier. Used inappropriately, however, you'll find yourself and your department bogged down in endless litigation as the privacy laws are in a tremendous state of flux and our friends at the ACLU are worried about everyone's civil liberties.

Learning the Lingo

Before you go off and start ordering equipment you need a basic understanding of the technology behind it.

The first technology issue to be aware of is analog vs. digital signals. A few years ago this wasn't an issue. Today it can make a huge difference in what you are attempting to accomplish. An analog signal is continuously variable, while a digital signal consists of discrete states, the exact opposite.

A digital signal is a binary signal, which means it has only two states, 0 and 1. Think back to when you were a kid and your parents had a television antenna on the roof. Sometimes you got a picture and sometimes you saw a blizzard of snow on the screen, or a continuously variable signal. Today's high definition TV is digital; the picture is there or it's not. There's no fine-tuning knob to fool with to get a better picture. This same premise applies not only to video signals, but to audio as well.

Next is encryption. It's been part of the cloak-and-dagger world for years, developed out of necessity for national governments. But until recently it wasn't readily available to local law enforcement. Today, your department better understand encryption and use it often or all your hush-hush investigations will end up on the local evening newscast before you have a chance to send them to your local prosecuting attorney.

Encryption, or cryptography, is the science of writing secret codes and has been used to protect the security of communications for hundreds of years. Essentially, cryptography enables the encoding of information so that only the intended recipient has the ability to understand its meaning. Today, it's the best way to protect the privacy and security of electronically transmitted information.

There are other matters to consider when deciding what electronic surveillance products to buy. Size and form, power consumption of the device, transmission power, and wireless vs. wired technology are just a few of the factors that will greatly influence your purchasing decisions.

Officers on the ground can view aerial surveillance with wireless technology from Pacific Microwave Research.

Wired Vs. Wireless

Over the past few years, wireless technologies have leaped beyond every expectation. While this speedy progress is great, it's also part of the problem. Advancements are coming so fast that a platform you buy today may be obsolete by next year.

Just look at the wireless 802.11 standards. First it was "b," now it's "g," and soon it will be "n." Each letter change marks the ability for data to move more quickly. At first it was 5, then 54, and then 100 megabytes from point to point. Other vendors decided they would use the FCC license-free 2.4-GHz spread spectrum equipment. The problems you'll run into using this band are that anyone can use it, you are limited in your transmission power, and you won't find a lot of compatible encryption equipment.

An alternative to the 2.4-GHz spread spectrum is cellular video surveillance. In January 2003 I used this technology provided by VivaMicro, a San Diego company, to increase law enforcement presence while remotely managing one of the events associated with the Super Bowl. This secure path allowed department managers to make decisions about manpower allocations without having to go to the scene. The company's technology has also been used to send digital still pictures to a secure Website to catch "taggers" in the act, leading to successful prosecutions.

Secure Internet Based

Another form of video surveillance is wired or IP based. This type of surveillance is usually set up in plain sight but can be easily disguised for covert operations.

Small, easily hidden dome cameras made by companies like Dotworkz Systems can capture video even in the dark and transmit the images to a secure website.

One provider of this type of technology is Dotworkz Systems. When faced with an ever growing amount of violence at some of San Diego's more popular beach venues on the Fourth of July weekend, SDPD approached Dotworkz because the company already had two Web-based, pan-tilt-zoom "dome cameras" located at two of our potential flashpoints. One of the two sites is also known for its narcotics activity.

By working with the company we gained exclusive access to the cameras during the holiday weekend. These cameras have powerful zoom lenses that allowed us to see a half-mile up and down the beach boardwalk. Each camera is also equipped with an automatic iris and works wells in low-light situations. By gaining access to this public asset, our decision makers were able to see and evaluate first person information without any translation or embellishment.

FCC Licensed

Another type of video surveillance is wireless aerial, which typically uses cameras mounted on a helicopter or fixed-wing aircraft. In most cases these are licensed by the FCC and operate between 2200 and 2500 MHz. But many network and local television news helicopters also operate on this frequency, so beware. If it's in the air and not encrypted you may find the local news is broadcasting your SWAT tactical video as you're trying to set up your perimeter.

This massive security console utilizes a variety of new surveillance technologies at once to keep a watchful eye on multiple locations.

One of the leaders of the new digital video systems technology is a joint venture between Pacific Microwave Research of Vista, Calif., and the Center for Commercialization of Advanced Technologies. PMR is developing a state-of-the-art digital video incident management tool to enhance its analog tactical video receiver (TVR), a handheld unit that displays video imagery transmitted by aerial assets or frontline surveillance platforms working within the shared spectrum.

CONTINUED: Spy Gear «   Page 1 of 2   »

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