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What is Physical Surveillance?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Physical surveillance is a form of monitoring where the subject is kept under physical observation. It can be combined with other modes of surveillance for complete coverage and may be used by law enforcement officers, as well as private investigators. This type of surveillance requires special skills and is labor intensive, as personnel must be continually rotated to provide coverage, and it may be necessary to use an array of observers to avoid attracting attention from the subject under observation.

In physical surveillance, members of a surveillance team watch and track their subject. Sometimes this is done in relatively close proximity, and in other cases, the person doing the surveillance may need to remain distant to avoid attracting attention. The surveillance team works on foot, in vehicles, and using other methods of transportation as necessary and must be highly alert, as well as flexible, to identify the movements of the subject and take appropriate actions.

Usually, the goal is to avoid alerting the subject to the presence of surveillance. In some cases, people may be aware that they are under surveillance by a security team, but the team remains concealed to avoid tipping off potential security threats. This allows people to be provided with discreet security as they go about their daily activities and can also be used in cases where a person is being used as bait to attract a criminal. The physical surveillance team provides protection for the subject and apprehends the suspects when they appear.

A number of tools are used in physical surveillance, including binoculars and telescopes, listening devices, and other specialized equipment. The members of the team may need to dress in costume to conceal themselves or blend in, and typically use unmarked, nondescript vehicles that do not stand out. This can include the of camouflaged vehicles designed to look unremarkable in a neighborhood. If someone in a relatively poor neighborhood is under physical surveillance, for example, a brand new unmarked car stands out, but an older car that looks well used and messy would fit in.

Physical surveillance can be dangerous. It can involve close contact with suspects and may put people at risk in a variety of dangerous situations. Working in teams helps, as team members can look out for each other, but sometimes a team is too obvious and it is necessary to work alone to avoid detection. Keeping an eye on communications and other activities as part of the surveillance operation can help people identify obvious risks before they happen.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a MyLawQuestions researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By JaneAir — On Sep 28, 2011

@indemnifyme - If private investigators weren't allowed to do physical surveillance, it would really hinder them in doing their jobs. I know it's creepy to think about someone following you around though.

However, private investigators often provide an important service in things like divorce proceedings. Wouldn't you like to know for sure your spouse was cheating on your before you file for divorce? And in some states if one spouse commits adultery, it weighs things in favor of the other spouse during the divorce proceedings.

A private investigator could never get this information if they couldn't follow people around!

By indemnifyme — On Sep 28, 2011

I think it should be illegal for private investigators to just spy on people like this. It sounds like borderline stalker behavior to me!

I think we should all have a right to privacy in our daily affairs. Now, if you're suspected of committing a crime that's one thing. But a regular, ordinary citizen should be able to leave their house without someone following them around and staring at them through binoculars!

By PinkLady4 — On Sep 27, 2011

Having a job as a physical surveillance detective is kind of like hide and seek and Halloween. The surveillance guy is trying to seek out the person they are following, and hiding if they get too close.

Sometimes they disguise themselves in different outfits at different times so the suspect won't notice that they are being followed by someone. They might have to pull a few tricks so they can keep track of what the suspect is doing.

It's fun to watch the surveillance teams on TV, but I'm sure it's not as glamorous as it looks.

By Bertie68 — On Sep 26, 2011

Being a police officer or a private investigator who does physical surveillance must be a very stressful job.

You would have to be on the alert all the time so you don't blow your cover. If they are in a crowded area, it's less likely that you will be discovered, but you could more easily lose the suspect in the crowd. If you were following someone in a quiet neighborhood, you would probably need to drive some kind of vehicle.

The job probably involves a lot of "waiting around" for the suspect to come out of a restaurant or wherever they go.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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