Electronic Surveillance: Definition & Laws

Instructor: Kent Beckert

Kent is an adjunct faculty member for the College of Business at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and has a Master's degree in Technical Management.

In this lesson, we will describe electronic surveillance, including the tools involved and its primary objectives. We will also discuss several laws passed and enacted to control the use of electronic surveillance.

Electronic Surveillance is Everywhere

When most people think about electronic surveillance, they think of spies, James Bond and the secretive gathering of intelligence. Electronic surveillance also takes on other forms, such as a private detective surveilling a cheating partner. A company might surveil employees at work using hidden cameras and microphones to uncover acts of misappropriation or the unauthorized use of equipment and resources. Electronic surveillance regarding these activities is not illegal, although many individuals consider surveillance a violation of personal privacy.

What is Electronic Surveillance?

Electronic surveillance is the act of recording, observing or listening to individuals in real-time with or without their knowledge. Electronic surveillance is typically conducted secretively and does not interfere with an individual's normal activities. Usually, a surveillance activity involves one or more individuals observing and documenting another individual's actions using cameras, long-range microphones and listening devices, as well as by monitoring cell, office, and home phone services.

Surveillance can be anywhere

Law enforcement and government agencies use electronic surveillance to collect information with the objective of identifying and preventing criminal activity or terrorist intentions. On the other hand, personnel security and the protection of property are the primary reasons large and small corporations employ electronic surveillance techniques. In either case, surveillance is an effective tool for crime prevention and identifying potential acts of espionage, theft and property damage.

Devices and Their Uses

The use of various electronic devices provides the opportunity to collect information on anyone at any time and with varying duration. Surveillance devices vary in size and use; listed below are several of the more prominent methodologies:

  • Wiretapping: multiple wires connected internally to a target's communication device, such as a telephone enabling real-time monitoring and recording
  • Bugging: requires the planting of a small electronic device on a person or in a strategic location, enabling individuals to listen in, copy and record real-time conversations
  • Pen register: a device placed on a telephone line used to identify the telephone numbers of calls made from the surveilled phone
  • Photographic surveillance: includes visual equipment such as closed-circuit television and digital cameras in various sizes used to photograph individuals
  • Wired agents and informers: involves the planting of a recording or listening device on a single person while engaged in conversations with other individuals

Surveillance gadgets
Spy Gadgets

Is Performing Electronic Surveillance Legal?

When done properly, electronic surveillance is legal. However, agencies employing methods of surveillance must adhere to specific regulations governing how, when and where surveillance may be conducted. Additionally, there are laws that control how the collected information may be used and under what conditions. Several legislative actions intended to limit the use of illegal surveillance activities are identified and briefly described in the table below.

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