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Powerful police surveillance tools: some sobering concerns

The term "technological surveillance" might sound innocuous and harmless enough at first blush, but many civil libertarians and other groups concerned with privacy rights and constitutional protections are growing increasingly concerned with what it entails.

And, as noted in a recent Washington Post article on the subject, it entails a lot.

Reportedly, more than nine of every 10 police departments across the country employ sophisticated technologies that allow them to quietly and surreptitiously monitor citizens' movements and actions. That estimate is supplied by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which states further that only about 20 percent of the nation's police units routinely availed themselves of such tech assists in 1997.

The Post story points to myriad and increasingly powerful police surveillance tools that watch, listen to and otherwise check on the populace. One of them, a pricey program called "Beware," is software that the paper says can scour "billions of data points" on an individual.

After compiling what can be voluminous information touching virtually every aspect of a person's life, Beware operates as a risk barometer. Specifically, it provides police with a color-coded threat index to work with as they confront a suspect, enter a home, stop a vehicle and so forth. You might reasonably regard yourself as a human. Beware sees you as green, yellow or red (that latter designation alerts police that you are potentially quite a high-risk person to be dealing with).

Enhanced software and technologies that use tracking cameras, cell phone tower mimicking devices, profiling strategies based on Internet presence and activities and additional tools are routinely welcomed by police departments and hardly apologized for as they seek evidence in cases ranging from drug trafficking to violent crime. One police chief says that, "The more you can provide in terms of intelligence and video, the more safely you can respond to calls."

There is unquestionably truth in that viewpoint. There is also concern, though, that evolving and steadily rolled-out next-generation surveillance tools can result in police officers sidestepping probable cause requirements, proceeding in the absence of warrants and avoiding public scrutiny that is sometimes critically important.

"There needs to be safeguards and oversight," says one critic.

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