There's a pivotal scene in almost every cop movie ever made since the 1960s. The undercover officer or the reluctant confidential informant meets with the criminal boss while wearing a wire and things go horribly wrong.
They go horribly wrong in real life, too. "We had one customer put it like this: 'You get caught wearing a wire, and it's a very bad day. It hardly ever ends well,'" says Todd Dupriest, CEO of Lenexa, Kan.-based Sur-Tec.
Since its founding 25 years ago, Sur-Tec has specialized in covert video and video surveillance tools. And one tool that the company has always wanted to improve is the radio frequency (RF) body wire. In 2009, Sur-Tec rolled out a new product that may make the RF body wire as obsolete as the buggy whip.
Sur-Tec's VP Covert Audio and GPS software suite is a patented surreptitious listening tool for law enforcement that allows an undercover officer or CI to stream live audio and GPS to one or more computers. The mobile application element of the software runs in the background on the user's smartphone.
Back in 2008 when Sur-Tec was developing VP, a computer engineering association magazine declared that streaming audio live over smartphones without latency (buffering) was not possible with current technology. Sur-Tec's engineers knew that it would be difficult, but they didn't agree that it was impossible.
"We're not using a voice channel," explains Dupriest. "We are streaming audio and that was technically challenging. Our customers demand as close to zero latency as humanly possible."
Concealment and speed are not the only benefits of the VP system over conventional RF wires. The range of RF body wires is limited by the power of their transmitters, urban clutter such as buildings, and the presence of a repeater. In contrast, VP has no range limits.
VP's data stream can be sent to any computer equipped with the software anywhere in the world. At last year's National Technical Investigators Association (NATIA) annual training conference in suburban Dallas-Fort Worth, Sur-Tec demonstrated the capabilities of VP by streaming data live to the show from Maui, Kansas City, and New York.
Of course, the capabilities of VP are affected by the quality of the cellular data network in the area of operation. "We're infrastructure dependent," says Dupriest. "Our system is as good as the network on which it operates." VP was developed to run on Sprint's 3G network. When that's not available, the system roams until it finds an appropriate signal. It can also be set up to use a Wi-Fi signal.
Also, if the signal drops, VP is designed to ensure that the undercover officer or informant still has a record of the conversation. The software transforms the phone into a surreptitious digital audio recorder. In addition, a data connection is re-established automatically once a signal is available without any action by the user.
Monitors can also send signals through vibrations to the undercover operative. The system allows the cover officers to buzz the operative's phone with either a two-second or a five-second pulse that could be used as a warning or an alert.
Dupriest says he realizes that savvy criminals may soon catch on to the use of smartphones for surveillance, but that doesn't invalidate VP. "It's a matter of officer safety," Dupriest argues. If the bad guy finds something on you, let him find a cell phone. Worst case scenario: he takes it or you have to destroy it to prove it's a cell phone. Go ahead, destroy it. It's just a cell phone. The other side of that coin is: you get caught with a wire."
VP is now available for the Windows Mobile platform. Sur-Tec is working on an Android version. The software sells for $4,995 per device for a lifetime license. Sur-Tec also offers a monthly plan for qualifying agencies.