More than a Vehicle Registration

During the course of a surveillance, the vehicle driven by the subject may offer more information than just the registration details.

For example, a quick look inside the vehicle may reveal his occupation, place of employment, or places where he frequently parks his car if you see unpaid parking tickets inside.

If you suspect the subject is involved in criminal activity or insurance fraud, then pay for a report from CARFAX and CarProof and get a history search on the vehicle identification number (VIN).   The history for the VIN will reveal any liens and state if the car was involved in past accidents or if it has been marked as a salvage, re-built or non-repairable vehicle. Also run the VIN at the Canadian Police Information Centre website under the stolen vehicle section.

The Olde Ways

I was summoned to a meeting with a client. The client firm is over a century old. This successful firm has learned a thing or two about security.

I was asked to surrender my electronic gadgets. Being of the old school, I had none. This pleased the gatekeeper. I was led to a room furnished with only a curious table and four old wooden bankers chairs. No telephone, no electrical outlets, one florescent light fixture above the table.  The gatekeeper had to unlock the room. She then waited at the open door until my contact arrived.

My contact enters and places pieces of chalk and a chalkboard eraser on the the table. Most of the table top is painted with chalkboard paint.

We eventually compose a handwritten Memorandum of Agreement regarding the engagement, sign it, and off we go.

These people understand the rules, especially Rule #1 — If you don’t want it overheard, don’t say it. But I must admit, I have never seen a “Magic Slate” table before.

Observation Skill — Spot the Pistol

Recognising that a subject is likely carrying a pistol is a necessary surveillance skill, even in Toronto.

Color is used to highlight how the gun moves and how the gun reveals itself, short visual noun-verb sentences that indicate the key signs that help detectives to spot someone carrying a hidden handgun. Click on the image to get a clearer view or go to the original article.

The explanation of how this graphic was developed with the help of Detective Robert T. Gallagher of the NYPD makes interesting reading.

Surveillance Tradecraft

Early in my career I was part of a surveillance crew. Every day I would go out and follow people. Sometimes I worked alone, sometimes in a car or cab with two other guys, sometimes as part of a multi-vehicle team.

It takes a long time to integrate a new guy into a surveillance crew. If he is experienced, it will take about 6 months. I have not seen any really good training schools for this in North America. I think the reason that such schools don’t exist here is that it takes too long to teach the fundamentals and this would cost a lot of money for lodging, cars, and instruction. In Canada, learning to conduct surveillance is definitely on-the-job training.

Let’s start with some definitions.

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Dyed hair and false beards are childish. Mere physical traits are of little use for identification. Context or ‘atmosphere’ are what matters.

If your subject gets into entirely different surroundings from those in which he was first observed — and this is the important part — really plays up to the new surroundings and behaves as if he had never been out of them, then he would be invisible to even the cleverest Private Investigator.

A fool tries to look different; a clever man looks the same and is, at the same time, different.

The deceiver assumes the new role by actually becoming the person he is impersonating. He is quietly absorbed into his new surroundings. In essence, the person you are seeking may be hiding in plain sight.

In Plain Sight

When he’s out and about near his Denver home, former Broncos quarterback John Elway has come up with a novel way to travel incognito—he wears his own jersey. “I do that all the time here,” the 50-year-old Hall of Famer told me. “I go to the mall that way. They know it’s not me because they say there’s no way Elway would be wearing his own jersey in the mall. So it actually is the safest thing to do.”  (Source:

Detecting Firesheep

I wrote about Firesheep awhile back. Predictably, a countermeasure has appeared called Blacksheep.

New Firefox Add-On Detects Firesheep, Protects You on Open Networks

If you’re concerned about using open Wi-Fi networks because of Firesheep, the highly popular new hacking tool, you should check out BlackSheep, a Firefox add-on that makes surfing on open networks safe once again.

DIY High Magnification Webcam

I found a video on how to turn an ordinary webcam into a telescopic surveillance device. This is interesting but I wouldn’t hot glue something to an expensive rifle scope. It would be better to put the webcam on the ocular of a spotting scope. that way if you must use glue, then only the ocular fitting needs replacement as most spotting scope makers have this as replacement part. However, I doubt the image quality would be useful in court.

Hijacking Social Network Connections

The Firesheep Firefox plugin makes it easy to hijack someone’s social network connections. For example, Facebook authenticates the client using cookies. If someone logs on using a public WiFi connection, the cookies are sniffable. Firesheep uses Wincap to capture the authentication information which allows you to hijack the connection.

Protect yourself by forcing the authentication through TLS or stop logging into Facebook using public networks.

Facial Recognition for the Masses

Facial recognition software

Enter a photo at and locate all photos of the same individual on Facebook.  This is limited to your friends at this point, but some developers are putting this on iphone apps. You can snap a photo on the street and get all their info through Facebook and other services this way.  In May 2010 they state that their Facebook apps have scanned over 7 billion photos in total and identified no less than 52 million faces.

This is something to watch as it has some interesting applications for the Investigator.  Of course some people will think the sky is falling due to the  mere existence of this app, but the technological genie was let out of the bottle a long time ago.

Secret Squirrel

Concealing one’s activities on the Web is something every Investigator should understand.  You should understand this for your own use and to understand how these techniques may deny you needed information.  Yet using these techniques may also target you as an undesirable in some circumstances.

The following are methods used to obscure Internet traffic and avoid IP blacklists  and content filters.

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Surveillance in a Wireless World

When a Windows PC, in its default configuration, is unable to find any wi-fi access point,  it actively seeks one out. In doing this it broadcasts signals trying to connect with any network to which it has previously connected. It will cycle through all of the network identities (names) it has previously used. All of this is sent in the clear and can be captured by anyone with a simple wireless tool running in “sniffing mode” nearby.  All of the network names it  connected with are disclosed over a few minutes. Coupled with an online resource such as WiGLE, this information can be used to establish a profile of the PC owner – where he lives, works, eats, drinks coffee, his gym, his favorite no-tell motel, and more. Any network that PC has connected to using wi-fi is an open book.