ARTCHIX COVER FEATURE: Lessons in Spycraft by Ralph D. Thomas, PART I

ARTCHIX COVER FEATURE: Lessons in Spycraft by Ralph D. Thomas, PART I 

The History And Evolution Of Covert
Video Surveillance Evidence Gathering

By Ralph Thomas

Spymaster Ralph D. Thomas with the Spy Chic Girls (above)

As a hardcore collector of old movie cameras and one who has been selling the latest state-of-the-art covert video products for over 20 years, I have come to know a great deal about the history and development of covert video equipment. I thought you might like to know the history and development behind the equipment you may currently use today so I present you with this article on it’s development. You can view a wide assortment of new covert video products in our showroom in Austin, Texas or do it on line through our front page of The Spy Exchange And Security Center. You can also view a lot of the old stuff through our Spy And Private-Eye Museum either in person or online.

The evolution of covert video can basically be divided into four different developmental stages. The first category is the film age. The second stage is the video/VHS agent. The third stage is the digital stage. The fourth stage is really a stage that transcends both the video/VHS stage and the digital stage. It has to do with the micro miniaturization of video cameras.

In the 17th century a Roman by the name of Athanasius Kircher invented a device that would project transparencies onto a screen with a lens. The Kircher projector was called the magic lantern. It wasn’t until 1832 until a stimulated motion device was invented. This device was called a Fantascope. It was invented by Joseph Plateau of Belgian. The Fantascope was nothing more than a spinning wheel in which images were placed on it. These images were drawn with movement such as a juggler with the juggled objects and arms in different positions. When the wheel was spun, the object in the drawing looked like it was moving. In 1877 the Praxinoscope was developed by Charles Emile Reynaud of France. The Praxinoscope was an actual projector using mirrors.

In was in the 1880’s that Thomas Edison developed the first movie camera that would record movement. Edison’s device, called the Kinetophone, didn’t work that well. Edison developed the Kinetophone to be used with another invention he developed, the phonograph; to record sound but the two were difficult to synchronize. The sound and motion picture system was a little before it’s time. It was really William Dickson, an inventor who worked with Thomas Edison, that actually developed a camera that could actually record motion which he called the Kinetograph in1880. It was not until May of 1893 that the world’s first public demonstration of a movie film was shown by Edison and Dickson. The film was of three people acting as blacksmiths. By the turn of the century, motion picture film was being utilized and movie houses started to appear in America to show these films.

One of the first highly popular movie productions was The Trip To The Moon which ran 14 minutes and basically was critical of the scientific community of the era. To the left is a screen shot of the spacecraft which went to the moon shown in the movie. The Great Train Robbery, which was made in 1903 was one of the most popular films of 1903. The Great Train Robbery recorded film of 14 different scenes. This was a very complicated film production for it’s time.

As movie production developed in the entertainment world, it wasn’t long before the American private-eye figured out that they could use these movie cameras to take surveillance footage covertly. Below is some examples of early movie cameras.

Enter The Age Of Film Movie Cameras For Covert Surveillance

Miniature Univex 8mm Movie Camera, 1939

The Univex 8mm Movie Camera was extremely small for it’s size and was likely the smallest movie camera of it’s time. It operated by spring winding and had distance adjustment focus and exposure settings. The camera measured a mere 3 1/4 X 4 X 1 1/4 inches. It was made by Universal Camera Company and a wonder to behold for it’s time.Click on link above for a copy of the original operations manual.

The Univex was a marvel for it’s time period because it was so small. The idea of using motion picture to record covert surveillance footage in the private sector really started around Hollywood California were movie cameras were in abundance.

Vintage Bell & Howell “FILMO Sportster” MOVIE CAMERA, 1930’s
This old 1930’s Bell And Howell Filmo Movie camera was really really small for it’s time period. As you can see, it had adjustments for weather and lighting conditions. This camera was also know as the “Double Run Eight.” It was a popular camera for private-eyes in the early days of obtaining surveillance footage because of it’s really small size. If you had one, you had a world wonder of cameras in it’s era.

16 MM Keystone Surveillance Movie Camera

I’m old enough to remember the day when there was a question as to the use of video tape as legal evidence. Just like the issue of digital imaging is today, a lot of people talked about how much easier it would be to alter a video tape than good old fashioned film. If you owned one of these back it their hay-day as a private investigator you where in envy! 16 MM with all that telephoto range made you a surveillance star with the greatest equipment there was.

Although still photography was well established as a tool for investigative use, the use of early motion pictures as a surveillance tool was really experimental until the 1940’s. By that time, movie cameras had advanced enough that the idea of shooting covert video footage on a surveillance for evidence was taking hold.

1940’s Rervere Miniature Movie Camera

For the 1940’s this movie camera was very very small and top of the line. It took a special loading film cassette. It had a high quality Baush + Lomb Animar 1:2,8/12,7mm. Its weight is kg. 1,100 and its measuements are the following: 58x100x132 mm.. Measures a mere 5.19 inches by 4 inches by 2.28 inches.

By the 1940’s, the use of movie cameras to obtain covert surveillance footage was in wide use. By this time, just about every private detective bureau (as private investigative agencies were called at the time) were using them. If you didn’t do it, you had become an outdated dinosaur!

Abraham Zapruder 8MM JFK Assassination Camera, 1963
A Sixteen Million Dollar Twenty-Eight Second 8 MM Film

The most famous 8MM movie footage ever taken was shot by Dallas dress manufacturer Abraham Zapruder of the John F. Kennedy assassination in Dallas, Texas November 22nd 1963. This is the exact model of the 8 MM camera Abraham Zapruder used to shoot the film. The film was shot on top of a concrete mound on the grassy knoll in Daily Plaza. It is a record of a few seconds before the assassination, what happened to President Kennedy during the assassination and a second or so after the assassination. The Abraham Zapruder film is a mere 486 frames, just six feet of film celluloid and lasts only 26 seconds. The film sold for sixteen million dollars. How’s that for a few seconds of surveillance footage!

Bolex Laillard 16MM Movie Camera with Zoom Lens, 1970s
There was a time when video cameras was not used simply because no one knew how the courts would rule on video footage as covert surveillance footage. Right before and advent of covert video surveillance cameras, most surveillance investigative agencies where using a Bolex 16mm camera. You would wind the camera with the crank and it was made in a way that various attachable lenses could be used with it. State-of-the art for it’s time, the Bolex was one of the best surveillance movie cameras for it’s era.

Zenit Covert Video Camera 1970’s
Zenit cameras are made in Russia. They are famous for the Photosniper which was used by espionage agents around the world to take still photos of people entering and exiting embassies. In the 1970’s Zenit released a video camera that would do the same thing. A few of these made their way into the USA and private investigators jumped at the chance to get one because of their gun-stock design which made shooting covert video much easier out in the field on a surveillance.

Enter The Age Of Video Cameras For Covert Surveillance

Video cameras were originally developed to be used for television broadcasting. At first, video cameras where huge, bulky and expensive. As technology moved forward, portable video cameras became something that every television news organization wanted. In 1983, Sony came out with the first truly portable video camera. In 1984, Sony came out with what they called the HandyCam camcorder. This was a new 8 mm video format. One tape could record for two hours. As soon as these came out, private investigative agencies started looking at these units for a means of recording covert video surveillance.

In the early 1980’s I was working with a company which conducted massive numbers of workman’s compensation surveillance investigations for the Florida Association Of Roofers, a self insured group. Video cameras had developed to a great extent but there was some legal questions of rather or not they could be used on a surveillance. Video surveillance was much easier to work with. With movie film, you had to get the film developed before you could actually review the surveillance footage you got. Video was different. You could obtain an instant review of the footage shot. However, for a while there was some question as to rather or not it was legal to use video for obtaining surveillance evidence and most surveillance companies held off using it. To this day, I remember the association’s attorney calling and rendering his legal opinion that the courts have ruled that the use of video footage as apposed to film footage for legal evidence in a surveillance was ok to do. Within a matter of only a few months, movie cameras for covert surveillance become a thing of the past and almost every surveillance company in America moved to video recording. There was a mad rush to covert. The sales of small camcorders exploded.

Sony High 8 HandyCam

As video surveillance developed, a High 8 video format developed which became the standard for shooting covert video footage. Pictured to the right is an older High Eight video camera made by Sony. It featured a 10X zoom, could take extended optical zoom lenses on the front of it and featured what was called “steady shot.” Steady shot was actually an image stabilizing feature which would reduce the jerky actions of a hand held video camera.

Enter The Digital Age

With today’s massive computer power, we have entered the digital age of covert video. Just like there was a legal question of the conversion of film to video as a surveillance evidence gathering tool, there has been legal questions of the switch from VHS to digital video. Digital video can be edited quite easily on a computer desktop. Thus, digital video becomes easily altered. However, this is true for any digital media including still photography and audio.

Sony HandyCam Digital

Sony was one of the first again to get into the digital camcorder market in a big way. Pictured on the left is my old Sony Digital HandyCam. Notice that Sony keep the slogan Handycam from this first small VHS camcorder they released. This early digital camcorder featured a 120 Zoom, and had what Sony called “Night Shot”, which meant that it could record in zero lux. It could also mount a telephoto lines in the front.

As digital camcorder technology moved forward, they became better, smaller, cheaper and with more features. Digital camcorders have now morphed themselves into multi-functional cameras in which they can perform in many different ways. Now only can the new generation digital camcorders take video footage, many of them can also do still photography, act as a digital video recorder with other cameras plug into them, perform as an audio recorder and be used as playback display units. Below are reviews of a couple of the current generation covert surveillance digital camcorders.

Covertly Recording Telephone Conversations

By Ralph Thomas

The federal law makes it unlawful to record telephone conversations except in one party consent cases which permit one party consent recording by state law. What that means is a person can record their own telephone conversations without the knowledge or consent of the other party in those states that allow one party consent.

It’s important to understand the difference between what has become known as one party consent and two party or all party consent. One party consent simply means that one party to the conversation must have knowledge and give consent to the recording. Two party or all party consent means that every party to the conversation must have knowledge and give consent to the recording.

There are twelve states that require all party consent. They are:

New Hampshire

There are 38 states that permit one party consent. They are:

District of Columbia
New Jersey
New Mexico
New York
North Carolina
North Dakota
Rhode Island
South Carolina
South Dakota
West Virginia

In all 50 states and through federal law, it’s considered illegal to record telephone conversations outside of one party consent. There are a couple of exceptions. In the state of California, one party consent can be applied only under circumstances in which one party is involved in criminal activity which would include extortion or blackmail. In the state of Arizona, the subscriber to a telephone service can record telephone conversations with no party consent when criminal activity is involved. Other than those two known exceptions, all other recordings outside of those states that permit one party consent are a violation of state and federal law. The question is often asked by clients if they can record the telephone conversations of their spouse in a domestic case or the conversations of their children concerning drug usage. In both of these cases, the answer is it’s unlawful. Many clients will complain that they own the telephone and pay the telephone bill so they should therefore have a right to record what they want. However, the law doesn’t address who owns the phone nor who pays the phone bill. It only addresses the use of one party and all party consent. Anything outside of that is a violation of state law and federal wiretapping law.

The Federal Communications Commission goes further into details on recording telephone conversations and states that the party recording must give verbal notification before the recording and that there must be a beep tone on the line to indicate that the line is being recorded.

Business Recordings

Federal law permits businesses to monitor phone calls that are business related when the monitoring is part or the ordinary course of business. When the content of the telephone conversation is of a personal nature, the monitoring must stop. In those cases of two party consent states, this exemption may be voided.

Calls Crossing State Lines

Calls that cross state lines become complicated legal issues especially when one state is a one party consent state and the other state is an all party consent state. What has happened is that you didn’t violate the law in the one party consent state and violated the law in the all party consent state. Moreover, since the call went across a state line, the federal laws would certainly apply. The most famous case involving this type of issue is the Linda Trip case. You will recall that Linda Trip recorded the telephone conversations of Monica Lewinski concerning her relationship with President Clinton. Trip was in Maryland and Lewinski was in DC. Note that Maryland is an all party consent state while DC is a one party consent state. The law is actually quite fuzzy on these issues. The recorder is advised to assume that the sticker law would apply.

Cell Phones And Wireless Phones

Cell and wireless telephones transmit conversation through the air like a radio does. You hear old stories of spying using scanners locked onto a wireless telephone frequency with an attached voice activated tape recorder connected to it to eavesdrop on the conversation. Until certainly, the laws concerning this activity was fuzzy. However, federal law now makes it illegal to record both wireless and cell phone conversations outside of one party consent. You used to be able to go into places like Radio Shack and purchase scanners that would lock onto the frequencies needed to pick up wireless and cell phone conversations. These scanners are now illegal to sell or be in possession of.


Alabama – One Party
Alaska – One Party
Arkansas – One Party
California – All Party
Colorado – One Party
Connecticut – All Party
Delaware – All Party
District of Columbia – One Party
Florida – All Party
Georgia – One Party
Hawaii – One Party
Idaho – One Party
Illinois – All Party
Indiana – One Party
Iowa – One Party
Kansas – One Party
Kentucky – One Party
Louisiana – One Party
Maine – One Party
Maryland – All Party
Massachusetts – All Party
Michigan – All Party
Minnesota – One Party
Mississippi – One Party
Missouri – One Party
Montana – All Party
Nebraska – One Party
Nevada – One Party
New Hampshire – All Party
New Jersey – One Party
New Mexico – One Party
New York – One Party
North Carolina – One Party
North Dakota – One Party
Ohio – One Party
Oklahoma – One Party
Oregon – One Party
Pennsylvania – All Party
Rhode Island – One Party
South Carolina – One Party
South Dakota – One Party
Tennessee – One Party
Texas – One Party
Utah – One Party
Vermont – One Party
Virginia – One Party
Washington – All Party
West Virginia – One Party
Wisconsin – One Party
Wyoming – One Party

About the Author: Ralph D. Thomas is a highly acclaimed author on spycraft, investigation and PI history. he is President of the National Association of Investigative Specialists and CEO of Thomas Investigative Publications, Inc., Lawmate America, and Spy Exchange And Security Center. Thomas resides in Texas with his wife Barbara and their family.


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About securityteknews
Ralph Thomas is author of over 32 books on various aspects of conducting investigations, founder and director of The National Association Of Investigative Specialists,CEO of Thomas Investigative Publications, Inc, The Spy Exchange And Security Center and SpyTek Wholesale Imports. Thomas is a member of the Executive Security Council of Griffith Colson Intelligence Service, a private intelligence agency. Thomas's latest project is NAIStv on the Griffith Media TV Network. He has also developed A Native American Store in Georgetown Texas called Tribal Impressions. You can review his person home page off of:

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