September 24, 2021

What is physical surveillance?

As the name suggests, physical surveillance is a form of covert monitoring carried out by an on-site surveillance specialist or security specialist. Physical surveillance is typically carried out to monitor the activity of an individual or a group of individuals where it is likely that they will move from one location to another. Electronic surveillance is great for monitoring a single location, however, it can only focus on a specific area. Physical surveillance allows for mobile surveillance of a target, and it is a very specialist skill.

Physical surveillance has a long history. It is one of the oldest forms of surveillance and information gathering and has been used by governments, private security agencies, crime organisations and minor criminals for years.

Whilst widely used, most countries have placed limits on surveillance. A right to privacy in one’s own home, for example, has near-universal recognition, so countries place restrictions on such intrusion.

Purpose of surveillance

While corporations and insurance entities can use surveillance, you do not have to be an enterprise or business to find the practice useful. There are several reasons that people use private investigators and security firms for investigations.

  • Insurance claims
  • Counterintelligence
  • Infidelity
  • Child support
  • Abuse
  • Illegal activity

The discretion of these services means that companies and individuals are able to collect unbiased data to help them through investigations, court cases, divorce proceedings, etc.

Of course, surveillance is also used by governments for intelligence gathering, prevention of crime, the protection of a process, person, group or object, or the investigation of crime.

On the flip side, surveillance is also used by criminal organisations to plan and commit crimes.

Businesses, both large and small, will also use different forms of surveillance to gather intelligence on criminals, their competitors, suppliers, customers, and even their own staff.

Types of surveillance

Whilst this post is focusing on physical surveillance, it’s important to understand the different types of surveillance used by organisations and how physical surveillance fits in. Here are some of the most common forms of surveillance:

  • Computer – this involves monitoring data and traffic sent over the internet and is usually carried out using specialist software that is set up to monitor specific keywords, monitor certain types of websites or monitor communications via email or online chat.
  • Telephones – the official and unofficial tapping of telephone lines is widespread. Human agents are not required to monitor most calls. Speech-to-text software creates machine-readable text from intercepted audio, which is then processed by automated call-analysis programmes. Mobile phones are also commonly used to collect location data.
  • Postal Services – this is a declining method of surveillance due to the increased use of email and other digital communication techniques, however, interception of post is still a technique used by law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
  • GPS and listening bugs – GPS tracking devices can be used on people’s vehicles as well as on their person to track their activity. Listening ‘bugs’ are also used to capture, record and/or transmit data.
  • Physical Surveillance – in this post, we will go into depth about the active role of physical surveillance which can include undercover operations as well as covert surveillance of individuals and groups.

There are other forms of surveillance and these can include the use of drones and RFID chips, however, we now turn our attention to physical surveillance.

The art of physical surveillance

Physical surveillance is one of the most challenging and demanding tasks involving monitoring and tracking the activities and events of target individuals and requires experience and expertise to be accomplished.

There are two main types of physical surveillance: fixed and mobile.

While fixed surveillance is required to monitor a person’s activities at one particular spot, mobile surveillance requires continuous movement by the surveillance individual or team in order to track down the activities of the individual(s) under observation.

Physical surveillance is utilised by private investigators and security specialists to gather intel, evidence, and additional information on the individuals they are hired to follow. 

There are many types of surveillance, but physical surveillance consists of hidden (often referred to as covert) and occasionally undercover observation of a suspect’s day-to-day activities, to identify patterns of behaviour or to observe specific actions or locations.

Fixed physical surveillance

As the name suggests, fixed physical surveillance takes place at one location and can involve the use of cameras and other digital recording devices to monitor a specific location or premise that is known to the individual being watched (e.g. the home or workplace).

Fixed physical surveillance teams will usually work in shifts to keep up constant monitoring of the premise and observe all comings and goings from the premise.

Often, fixed and mobile surveillance teams will work together with the fixed team never leaving a particular premise whereas the mobile team will follow the subject throughout their day.

Mobile physical surveillance

In order to accurately monitor and record an individual or group’s movements, mobile surveillance may be necessary. This can be done on foot or in a vehicle and is always done covertly from a distance to avoid discovery.

Mobile surveillance is a highly skilful role and whether you work as part of a team or on your own as a private investigator, you need to be highly alert, flexible and discreet in order to track the movements of your subject without detection.

VIP and personal protection

As well as being used to track people of interest, physical surveillance can also be used as part of a VIP or close personal protection role. Sometimes, discretion is extremely important to certain individuals so covert surveillance is a strategy used to keep track of high-value individuals in order to identify any potential security threats.

In this case, the individual knows that they are under surveillance and it is this surveillance that allows them to go about their day to day business in the knowledge that someone is tracking their movements and identify and nullifying any potential threats.

Physical surveillance in all forms can be dangerous and can involve close contact with suspects or people who are angry about being put under surveillance. Working as part of a team can help to minimise the threat to all team members and constant vigilance is an important trait of a security specialist carrying out physical surveillance work.

It is common in our VIP protection work to run a counter surveillance operation in tandem with the primary job itself.


Surveillance goes beyond the basics of home security. Knowing the type of investigation will help a security team determine the best kind of surveillance for the job, whether that be electronic, technical, physical or a combination of several others.

At The Chivalry Group, all our security specialists are trained in the art of physical surveillance as well as other forms of surveillance and we have a lot of experience and expertise in the field of carrying out overt and covert surveillance operations. Contact us today to learn more.

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