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Clandestine police surveillance tools: powerful, indeed

In the "old days," police in Alameda County or anywhere else in the United States responding to a 911 call from a home relating to a perceived matter of some urgency -- a gun shot heard, for example, or maybe a report of domestic violence -- would respond with knowledge gleaned from the emergency operator. They might supplement that, on occasion, with data previously collected from the home.

Conversely, police responders these days are often availed of high-tech investigative tools so advanced and secrecy-laden that one recent media report on cops' surveillance methods and activities refers to them as "something out of a dystopian science fiction novel."

Here's a question that is begging to be asked: If police assists -- camera technology that surreptitiously films crowds in public places, mobile electronic wizardry that diverts smartphone call information by mimicking cell towers, algorithms that scan Internet sites for select terms and buzzwords, and so forth -- can protect police officers and thwart criminal behavior, what's the problem?

The answer is a bit relative, of course. For people living in a totalitarian state, such spying and privacy-invasive tools might not seem to be a big deal, if even an issue at all.

Democracies, though, are marked by rule-of-law canons and long-tenured protections against police abuses. High numbers of thoughtful citizens in such countries -- and certainly in the United States, where Americans are empowered by privacy rights and freedom from groundless searches, warrantless intrusions and other excesses -- understandably react with alarm to news (especially after-the-fact reports) that police departments are progressively employing highly secretive and invasive monitoring tools without, arguably, responsible checks that limit their use.

We will continue our focus on this subject in next week's blob post, noting in detail some of the investigative tools now being rolled out by police departments across the country and critics' reactions to them.

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