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Home > Reviews > The Theory of Covert Surveillance

The Theory of Covert Surveillance

Author Peter Jenkins

ISBN No 978 09535378 60

Review date 13/08/2022

No of pages 385

Publisher ISS Publishing

Publisher URL

Year of publication 20/10/2020


Our Review


£ 34.99, softback

Not for the first time, and let's hope not for the last, Peter Jenkins has brought out a serious piece of kit, writes Mark Rowe.

This latest book of his, The Theory of Covert Surveillance, updates and accompanies his 2010 work Surveillance Tradecraft. This adds to an ever more admirable shelf of works, also covering covert photography (hence this new book doesn't cover taking photos, necessary though it may be to evidence-gathering). Like Peter's previous books while a considerable block of learning, it feels digestible, as it's well laid out and with plenty of images. It's striking just how much there is you can learn, from tactical map folding (page 363; so you can use a map easily while walking or in the car) to doing a de-brief (page 92; don't let it go on too long, and don't continue it in the pub, is Peter's advice).

As the sub-title says, it's a surveillance training course handbook. As ISS Training, Peter in January 2019 had three surveillance courses accredited by the exam awarding body IQ. His book is the course manual. Does that mean that you can pay £34.99 for the book, read it, and hey presto, you can do surveillance covertly, and you have saved yourself the time and cost of going on one of Peter's courses?

Peter answers that at the very beginning. Yes, the book is a sort of distance learning; it even has QR codes that you can scan and access further reading material (being downloadable, it can be updated in a way a physical book cannot be) and video tutorials. As Peter points out, don't confuse learning from a book with mastering of the skill. Even if you take in what the book tells you, can you apply it? "The practical element is the hardest part of any training course."

I can agree with that, having sat or rather stood in with the last day of one of Peter's foot surveillance courses in London. Peter took trainees, as featured in the June 2016 print edition of Professional Security, from the classroom they worked in for a week in south London, and went by Tube to central London, where the students had to put what they had been taught into practice. Peter and Professional Security were the target, in Covent Garden and on Oxford Street.

As on all such occasions, the thing that sticks in the memory may not be the most important learning of the day; for me, it was that there's nothing wrong with browsing (as Peter did) around the women's clothing part of a department store. After all, it may be for a wife, or you may be transitioning?! To carry out surveillance while minimising the risk of being noticed by the target, you have to be self-confident, or put another way to act naturally, and not get startled. The same goes for if you are, let's say, a bodyguard carrying out surveillance to see if you or your principal is being followed. Peter writes that his favourite tactic is to go into a cafe, sit next to a complete stranger and start chatting to them; 'it doesn't matter if they think you are bonkers'. A surveillance team will consider (as Peter teaches) 'loss versus gain'. In this case, the gain could be; you, the target, may be saying something important to that unknown person you've chosen to sit beside. The loss; by entering the cafe to try to overhear the conversation, the person or team doing the surveillance may become obvious to you.

As Peter says, such anti-surveillance is something for any 'professional security operator' to do; including himself, if he is working abroad. He explains that after checking in at his hotel, he will usually carry out anti-surveillance as he familiarises himself with the area, carrying out subtle drills as he walks around for an hour to get his bearings. Such measures can become routine in your day, without you becoming paranoid, and without even thinking about the drills, whether you are on foot, in a vehicle, or on public transport (all fully covered in the book).

You can (to mention the phases of surveillance) stake-out, pick up, and follow your surveillance target as far as 'housing' (a tricky part - when the target enters premises, as you've got to be ready to pick the target up again once they leave, whenever that may be). Peter advises that three things 'will always get you noticed', which you don't want: multiple sightings (if I am the target, why do I keep seeing you?!), unnatural behaviour; and cross-contamination (if you have aroused my suspicion by following me, I'm also suspicious of whoever you talk to). Precisely because it's hard for a single person to keep following someone, without arousing suspicion, Peter recommends a minimum of two, and in his book assumes three. Carrying out single-handed surveillance, while a temptation (to cut costs?) is number one in the 'top ten mistakes' list that Peter ends his book with. Number ten is, by the way, 'not getting on the ground early enough'.

Peter acknowledge that it's easier said than done, to behave naturally, if you are wearing an earpiece so as to communicate with the others in your team. Fit in with your environment so that you are the 'grey person' who is within the 'baseline' of a place and time of day. If in a department store, for instance, 'if you are not acting naturally you will become the focus of attention for store assistants and store detectives', Peter warns.

Who is this book for? To leave Peter for a minute, covert surveillance is one of those James Bond skills that we see in any number of Hollywood films, and - like making a pop song or driving a car fast - we like to think we can do it. And indeed Peter's book is aimed not only at private investigators - who work for example on behalf of an insurer, to check whether someone claiming an industrial injury really is injured - but police and the military, even photo-journalists who may hide in a field or a stream to get a good picture (and indeed one more risk for the bodyguard to carry out surveillance against, like the celebrity-fixated stalker or the corporate spy watching an executive, or a rival on behalf of a client).

And there is something profoundly human about someone following another covertly, even someone they know well. A poignant end to the German Nobel Prize-winning author Heinrich Boell's 1950s novel And Never Said A Word sees the hero, Fred, follow his estranged wife Kate (around Boell's native city of Cologne) while she does shopping. When she stops at a soft-drink stand, 'once again I saw her small hands pushing money across the counter,picking up change, putting it in her purse, tiny movements that I knew, that now caused a great pain in my heart'. Fred according to Peter's theory isn't a very skilled surveillance operator - when Kate goes into a department store, he watches the entrance - unnatural behaviour! To give a London literary example, in the nightmarish world of 1984, the hero Winston Smith puts Julia under surveillance, and his neighbour's children as keen followers of Big Brother put suspicious lone walkers under surveillance and denounce them as enemy spies. Covert surveillance can give the thrill of the chase and a sense of power over the unsuspecting.

Peter does start his chapter on evidence and law with the point that 'we can go out and put someone under surveillance' - take their photo, video them, even put a tracking device on their car without their permission. That said, under human rights law, we have a right to privacy; and if you the PI do gather data through surveillance, under data protection law you have to handle that data properly. If you don't record your evidence correctly, no matter how long your surveillance or effective (showing visibly that someone is shamming a workplace injury), in court you could see the case thrown out on a technicality.

Which takes us on to the law about private investigators. As Peter reviews, the Home Office (when Theresa May, future PM no less, was Home Secretary) said in 2014 that the Security Industry Authority (SIA) would license PIs. "It didn't happen." And while a British Standard for investigative services, BS 102000, arose out of the phone hacking scandal and the Leveson Inquiry (eventually), Peter gives his opinion that despite the standard as a code of practice - to keep to if you are working for insurance companies - an actual investigator will 'still take a short-cut and break the law ... the standard of surveillance by some of their [PI companies'] investigators is very poor'.

One quibble about an outstanding work; the index at the back is less than full; for instance, it doesn't include under C, cul-de-sac, and a page (223) does cover the potentially awkward moment when carrying out mobile surveillance, if the target drives into a cul-de-sac, whether because he has business there or because the driver suspects he's being followed. Again, Peter's advice is to act naturally and not panic; there are things you can do. If you want to know badly enough, buy the book, or read the December 2020 print edition of Professional Security magazine!

The book like Peter's others is a testament - an advert, if you like - for Peter and his courses. He writes that aged 58 he is still carrying out live surveillance and puts much energy into working with animal welfare charities, 'in the fight against animal cruelty'.