Surveillance Specialist: Job Description, Training & Salary

If your idea of a rewarding career involves preventing or investigating crime, a surveillance specialist position could be of interest to you. Working either for the government or in the private sector, catching crooks and intercepting illicit communications is just one part of the job. Read on to learn more about job requirements, education and salary prospects.

Career Definition of a Surveillance Specialist

A surveillance specialist is used by government agencies or for-profit corporations to support counterintelligence or counterterrorism investigations. They may work in the field or remotely using a wide range of specialized equipment and skills. It is likely that a surveillance specialist will need to travel for work, potentially being assigned duties across the country, or even worldwide, depending on his or her employer's jurisdiction.

A surveillance specialist may be employed to gather information on a particular person or geographical area of interest; he or she may be required to infiltrate digital systems, such as video feeds or databases, and often has a background in law enforcement or the military, with experience in technology, investigations and/or homeland security.

Job duties and the day-to-day activities of a surveillance specialist could vary wildly, from establishing surveillance posts or stake-outs, monitoring communications and performing research or data analysis, to even actively following suspects or targets. Not surprisingly this career path can include the possibility of danger pay and plentiful overtime or varying hours.

Educational Requirements A bachelor's degree in such fields as computer systems analysis, homeland security, criminal justice, etc.
Job Skills Attention to detail; attentiveness; research skills; technological expertise in audio, video and/or network systems; discretion
Average Salary (2019)* A good benchmark would be the GS-10 salary range offered by the FBI. This is the starting salary for a special agent, and in 2019 the starting pay will be $48,297 across the United States.
Job Outlook (2016-26)** 7% (police and detectives)

Sources: *Office of Personnel Management, **U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Required Education

Depending on the employer, the typical requirement to begin a career in surveillance is a bachelor's degree. Prospective employees may find they are required to show less work experience if they also possess a master's degree. Typical fields of study may include homeland security, criminal justice, network or database analysis, audio and video systems, etc. The U.S. government is one of the largest employers in this field, so individuals may also be required to pass the required background checks and investigations to gain employment.


Training within the U.S. government will often be administered internally; the FBI requires new recruits to undergo both physical and educational training. There are private firms which offer certifications in areas concerning security and surveillance, and these may be useful if looking to become employed in the private sector. Certifications for surveillance professionals may include security management, investigations or physical security qualifications.

Required Skills

Applicants will no doubt need to have a solid background in technology, including experience with audio, video and computer systems. As well as this, individuals wishing to explore a career in surveillance will need patience, discretion and attention to detail if they are to succeed in the field. Some teamwork may be required, potentially involving presenting findings to a group of fellow investigators, or preparing documents and files as evidence. Depending on possible travel and fieldwork, individuals may do well with a foreign language skill and strong physical attributes.

Career Outlook & Salary

Careers in law enforcement (specifically police officers and detectives) are expected to grow by 7% from 2016-2026, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is outpaced by investigators and detectives in the private sector, which is expected to grow by 11%. It is difficult to give an average salary for a surveillance specialist, given the variety of employment possibilities within the field. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics states that the median salary of a private investigator was $50,700 in 2017, while the median salary for police and detectives was $62,960. Government salaries are publicly available online at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, and salary codes for various positions and geographies are also posted on government websites. Due to the nature of the work a surveillance specialist undertakes, it is reasonable to assume overtime bonuses and/or danger pay may also be applicable.

Related Careers

Here are some links to related careers in the fields of homeland security, law enforcement and surveillance:

Police Officer

Private Investigator

Computer Network Analyst

FBI Agent

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