Surveillance Technology: 1984 to Present

"James Garner; James Whitmore Jr. Rockford Files 1977, by NBC Television

James Garner — Rockford Files, by NBC Television

Thirty Years of Surveillance Technology: An Overview of Changing Times

At my Denver firm, we have been conducting surveillance investigations since 1984. We’ve seen a few changes in surveillance technology over the years. Today, private investigators have access to phones, voice mail, texts and emails, from nearly anyplace the investigation might take them. But in an era before instant communications, we had to plan every communication, strategically deploy our tools, and execute surveillance jobs with a well-developed set of best practices.

Here’s an overview of what’s changed in the past three decades:

The Days of Super 8 Video

In the early days of surveillance, we were armed with Beaulieu Super 8 movie cameras. These had approximately three minutes of film per roll. If an investigator was shooting a lot of film, they would constantly have to reload the camera, leaving gaps in the subject’s activity.

And after obtaining the evidence, the investigator would have to wait for the film to be developed before they could review what they had.

Beaulieu 5008 Super 8 mm

Beaulieu 5008 Super 8 mm

Communication in the Pay Phone Era

In those days before cell phones and pagers, an investigator on assignment was on their own. In order to make a phone call, an investigator had to break away from surveillance, locate a pay phone (try to locate one of those now), make the call, and then return to the case. If the investigator returned to surveillance and the subject was still there, that was a good day. More often than not, the subject would be long gone.

Therefore, you limited these calls to “emergency” situations. Of course, over the years, some things don’t change: Clients often have a different definition of “emergency.”

Then along came pagers. But anytime someone paged you, the same problem arose — you had to break away from your case and find a pay phone. Still, you tried to only do this for “emergencies.” And in those days, who didn’t get a page from time to time that started with “911,” followed by the number to call?

This meant ASAP! But many times, it was a situation that could have waited. So while technology had some advantages, we quickly learned, it also had drawbacks.

Early Video Cameras

Then along came video cameras. Early cameras had to be wired into a full-sized VCR while you were filming. When the investigator had to follow a subject on foot, they had to haul a pretty obvious camera — and they had to carry a cumbersome VCR in a pack, which was strapped over the investigator’s shoulder.

Being a private investigator in the Rocky Mountain region, this meant that we sometimes had to heft this entire package up ski slopes, and ski behind the subject with a VCR on our backs. One wrong turn or ill approached mogul, and an investigator quickly learned what skiers mean by having a “yard sale” on the slope.

Mobile Phones

Motorola DynaTAC 8000X from 1984. (photo by Redrum0486)

Motorola DynaTAC 8000X from 1984. (photo by Redrum0486)

Then along came cell phones. Early cell phones were affectionately referred to as “brick phones” because they were about the size of a brick. These large phones were accompanied by an equally large monthly bill. In those days, you were only able to make calls in your “home area” without huge expenses. But venture outside that area, and you’d get hefty roaming charges, usually over $1.00 per minute.

Surveillance Today

Compare those early years to what we have today. Every investigator has at least one cell phone, and that phone is a computer in its own right — which means PIs have instant access to email, voice mail, HD camera, video, a scanner, and more.

Today a surveillance investigator is rarely completely out of touch with others. Sometimes, I’m not sure that this is a good thing — especially if we rely too much on tech and too little on planning.

Technology has made leaps and bounds and has given the modern private investigator some incredible tools. But it’s always fun to reminisce about the equipment we used a “few” years back. In the end, tech has evolved. Communications have become easier and faster. That said, no advancement in technology replaces solid training, a well-devised plan, and best practices.

A version of this post first appeared on the Night Moves of Denver blog.

About the Author

Ryan Johnston is owner of Night Moves of Denver Private Investigations. He has more than 30 years in surveillance investigations in Colorado, conducting surveillance for insurance defense, insurance fraud, worker’s compensation, and personal injury cases. The PPIAC voted him 2014 private investigator of the year. He was also a volunteer fireman for 14 years.