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Police surveillance tools, citizens’ liberties: the need for balance

| Feb 4, 2021 | Criminal Defense

Would it bother you as a Colorado resident to know that nonstop police surveillance of your house yielded the arrest of a dangerous criminal living nearby?

How about this scenario? What if a criminal task force was routinely gathering information linked to your cellphone use without having any particularized suspicions that you were personally engaged in criminal wrongdoing?

And let’s go one more: What if any Internet user could anonymously use a website that had cameras honed in on your property at all times? Might such unfettered public access to your personal space and coming-and-going activities spook you just a little bit?

The entrenched and growing realm of police surveillance

Police monitoring activity has come a long way in recent years.

In fact, high-tech spy tools and devices that would have once seemed purely from a fictional realm are now commonplace in the law enforcement universe. Moreover, such police assists are being developed at a rapid rate and employed by departments across the country.

Is that a problem?

Unsurprisingly, the law enforcement community nearly unanimously applauds the growing – and clandestine – use of streaming technologies that can be applied in daily police activities.

After all, they often help to catch the bad guys.

There is a flip side to a liberal tech-use view promoted in the absence of close public scrutiny and strong legal protections afforded surveilled persons, though. It sounds in liberty and is being progressively voiced by a broad-based coalition of civil-rights groups and privacy advocates.

What type of technologies are fostering concerns?

A recent National Public Radio article on evolving police technologies and linked concerns notes that law enforcers now easily “integrate technology into their day-to-day job.” They do so via assists like these:

  • Automatic license plate readers that log so-called “geospatial data” indicating where a car was located at a given time
  • “Shotspotter” technology that identifies gun shots, pinpoints time of discharge, firing location and other specifics
  • “Stingray” mobile technology, which police use to mimic a cellphone tower and divert phone traffic, which they then analyze to collect personal user information
  • Citizen Virtual Patrol, which is the above-cited network of cameras employed across a city and rendered available to the public via an online website

The NPR piece notes that those and other tech tools are discussed at length by author Jon Fasman in his book We See It All: Liberty and Justice in an Age of Perpetual Surveillance. Fasman notes that, while there are regulations concerning such invasive gadgetry, “there aren’t penalties for violating them or not strong enough penalties.”

And that yields a question for Fasman and other Americans concerned with the future of a democratic state.

That is this: “Is it worth the cost to our privacy and liberty to implement this technology?”

Debate is hot and heavy on this point. Time will tell.

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