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What Is Electronic Surveillance?

By Joyce Priddy
Updated May 16, 2024
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In its most basic sense, electronic surveillance is the use of some form of electronic technology to monitor, and usually to also record, certain activities. There are three primary surveillance techniques, namely videotaping, photography, and audio recording; sometimes surveillance over the Internet also comes within this definition. No matter the means the monitoring is almost always intended to be covert. People are often aware that they may be being monitored, as is often the case with security cameras mounted in stores or traffic cameras posted near busy intersections, but they aren’t usually sure how or where. The laws regarding who may conduct surveillance and in what form tends to vary considerably from place to place, as does the scope of what can be done with any information that is gathered.

Common Reasoning and Benefits

People often engage in this sort of surveillance, either individually or through a third-party contractor, for personal reasons, such as to collect evidence of a spouse’s infidelity or a teenaged child’s delinquency or illegal behaviors. In other cases, surveillance devices may be used by law enforcement to trap criminals or law-breakers, or may also be used by property owners in order to keep a specific premises secure. The rules and protocol usually differ depending on the application, and many countries and jurisdictions take measures to prevent or at least mitigate the collection of information on innocent persons who may be implicated in a larger monitoring scheme.

Traffic Cameras

Governments and local law enforcement offices often use surveillance cameras as a means of promoting roadway safety and adherence to traffic laws. Cameras placed on or near traffic signals can photograph license plates of drivers who run stoplights, and those mounted alongside roadways can detect speeding. The main idea is to catch more offenders while saving the time and expense of having officers approach and penalize people individually; in most cases tickets can be issued automatically from a computer and sent through the mail.

Localities frequently also use this sort of surveillance as a means of monitoring traffic congestion. Some highways have surveillance to help keep an eye on areas that are known to have a high number of accidents. Subsequently, emergency personnel can be dispatched immediately to the scene to provide help to drivers and accident victims.

Protection of Property

Homeowners and business owners often use video surveillance to protect their property. The goal typically is to deter robbers from ever entering the premises, and to record their activities if they do. Many times the cameras are clearly visible around the perimeter of a house or within a store. Alternatively, property owners who have issues with vandalism, suspicious noises, or other problems might set up hidden video cameras to find out what is going on.

Police and other law enforcement agencies may use recordings from this sort of surveillance to help apprehend criminals. Many times, identification of a perpetrator is made from a recording, and clues can often be gathered from the tapes about next moves.

Wiretapping and Bugs

Wiretapping is electronic surveillance of telephone communications. In most cases, the government, military, and law enforcement units use wiretapping more than the private and business sectors do. In the United States as well as in many other countries, the law requires that a judge or other official give permission for a wiretap when the individuals being recorded do not know that they are under electronic surveillance. For example, if someone is suspected of money laundering or drug trafficking, a judge may give permission for local law enforcement to set up wiretaps.

Bugging is another type of electronic surveillance. Small microphones pick up conversations and any noises in a “bugged” area. This information is transferred to a listening device and is often recorded. The laws on bugging generally are stricter than video surveillance, but are usually less stringent than wiretapping.

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Discussion Comments
By Mammmood — On May 12, 2011

The NSA electronic surveillance program is called Echelon. It’s supposedly the biggest spy program in the world, and listens in on phone calls, emails, and just about any kind of electronic communication imaginable.

It listens for certain keywords that may have security significance and then forwards that information to a computer, then to an analyst for further investigation. Some people protest this use of technology by I think it’s important to do whatever it takes to keep us safe.

By SkyWhisperer — On May 10, 2011

Electronic surveillance takes on many forms, especially in these days of text messaging and cell phones. There is now a device on the market that will read text deleted messages from a cell phone. You can plug in your cell phone’s SIM card into the device and it will retrieve any messages that you have deleted, with amazing accuracy from what I’m told. It’s kind of like a backup restore for your hard drive, except that the technology is used for mini-electronic devices. I’m told the same device is available for flash drives and mp3 players as well.

How is this surveillance? Well, it’s obvious. Parents can snoop in on their teenagers’ conversations and employers can monitor the chat text messages going back and forth between their employees and other people. This kind of spy gear raises questions about personal liberties and privacy, but in some situations it may be necessary to prevent potential litigation or harm to the person being spied upon.

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