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Cops and stingrays: Does that intrinsically sound a bit ominous?

Here's a hypothetical that we pose for readers, along with an attendant inquiry.

Imagine that police investigators suspect an individual of criminal activity, but have no immediate grounds to search or arrest that person. Their arguments in pursuit of a warrant authorizing a search of their target, his premises and personal effects aren't particularly impressive to a judge, who denies their request.

Not to be denied, they act in warrantless fashion by availing themselves of highly secret and effective surveillance technology that allows them to track their suspect's cellphone data. Select information they uncover is useful to them, and they proceed to make an arrest, stating that other evidence supplied the requisite probable cause for doing so. They file criminal charges against the suspect, without disclosing to defense counsel their covert surveillance methods used to procure evidence.

Here's that above-noted inquiry, posed to our readers in California and elsewhere: Does that bother you?

In fact, the above scenario is anything but hypothetical across the United States, and it is indeed eliciting the concern of many Americans, including even some prosecutors. The surveillance tool used by many police agencies across the country -- including the San Francisco Police Department, according to the American Civil Liberties Union -- is called the "stingray," and its wide employment by law enforcement agencies poses a direct constitutional challenge.

As noted in a recent media article discussing stingray surveillance capabilities, the tool is a cellphone tower-mimicking device that is small enough to be used by cops as they cruise the streets. Phones seeking to connect with towers are unwittingly directed to a stingray, with phone-related data -- phone location, numbers called, text messages sent and so forth -- captured by the device.

It is powerful technology indeed, and deemed increasingly troublesome by many critics. In Baltimore, where stingray technology has been used in a big way, defense attorneys are looking through as many as 2,000 cases where stingray-derived evidence that was never disclosed as lawfully mandated might have been used to secure criminal convictions.

It's "a crisis," says one commentator.

And what many people find especially worrisome is this: Stingrays indiscriminately gather warrantless information from the phones of every person nearby that are seeking to contact a consumer tower.

One of those phones could be yours.

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