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Sophisticated phone surveillance: Enter the stingray

If you're the sort of person who respects police officers and law enforcement efforts generally, yet at the same time retains some skepticism regarding the strategies they sometimes employ, you'll certainly be interested -- and likely grow a bit depressed -- by hearing some of the details relevant to one of their favorite investigatory toys.

That would be the so-called "stingray," something that might sound innocuous and sufficiently harmless at first blush.

In fact, some law enforcement officials would prefer that you regard the stingrays in use -- and there are many of them -- as essentially benign and friendly allies that no upstanding citizen needs to fear.

Stingray technology is used to locate killers, says FBI Director James Comey.

"It's how we find kidnappers," he adds. "It's how we find drug dealers. It's how we find missing children. It's how we find pedophiles."

In fact, it's how cops with access to the technology basically find anybody, which critics -- including the ACLU, defense attorneys, civil liberty advocates, judges and even some prosecutors -- find to be a troubling and perplexing power.

As noted in a recent media article discussing stingray technology and its tracking capabilities, a stingray system is about the size of a suitcase. A mobile police team can easily cart the system around in a vehicle, with the stingray mimicking a cell phone tower. The data from phones interacting with it -- and there can be many thousands of them -- is instantly captured, with police officers then having the ability to find whoever it is they're looking for.

The concerns relating to that are myriad. One defense attorney refers to "the horror" of stingrays, given that attorneys defending criminal suspects can't challenge evidence that they don't even know about. Civil liberty groups decry the fact that police fishing for suspects via stingray technology easily intercept the phone data of high numbers of other people who are not being investigated for any crime. The privacy implications of that are clear and disturbing.

It's hard to say how many police departments nationally own a stingray system. At about $400,000 per unit, they're a bit pricey for small departments. The above-cited media report notes, though, that "dozens of police departments from Miami to Los Angeles" own stingrays or similarly invasive technology.

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