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Civil rights & the fight over new police surveillance technology

It has often been said that technology evolves faster than our ability to regulate its use. You might think the danger in this equation comes from consumer products that are released to the general public without proper testing and rules governing use. But in many cases, the real danger lies in how modern technology is used (and abused) by law enforcement agencies and other arms of the government.

Consider the incredible advances in surveillance and data storage technology over the past couple decades. Our smart phones carry incredibly personal information about us. The location of our vehicles (and phones) can be tracked using GPS software, and our electronic communications can be monitored and recorded with ease. These technological innovations were not even imaginable when the founders sought to protect Americans from unreasonable search and seizure.

A recent Washington Post article discusses powerful new technology that some cities are using without widespread knowledge or consent. In Fresno, California, for instance, law enforcement agencies are using a proprietary piece of software called "Beware," that can collect and analyze data about individuals and then immediately assign a predicted "threat level." This information is then shared with officers en route as they respond to 911 calls.

Fresno also operates a "Real Time Crime Center," which is where most of this information is amassed and analyzed. Few residents realize that technicians in the RTCC can pull video feeds from hundreds of cameras around the city at a moment's notice; nor do they know that software may be trolling their social media activity as part of their threat-score calculation.

Is this type of technology going to be useful in solving crimes? The answer is almost certainly yes. But should such technology be used simply because it is available? That's a more difficult question to answer.

In recent years, the U.S. Supreme Court has handed down important Fourth Amendment rulings related to warrantless cellphone searches, GPS tracking and even the use of drug-sniffing dogs. In many of these rulings, the Court has reaffirmed the need for law enforcement agencies to follow due process and obtain warrants before conducting such invasive searches.

Meanwhile, new technologies are developed all the time. Will law enforcement agencies honor the spirit of the Fourth Amendment? Or will they continue to use new technologies until and unless they are specifically told they cannot do so?

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