How bad do things have to get in San Francisco before the locals have had enough? This bad. It turns out that refusing to enforce the law brings lawlessness. From last November:
The thing is, we are talking about real money — organized-crime money — not chump change from a little freelance pilferage. Operation Proof of Purchase, a multiagency law-enforcement effort organized by CVS, turned up more than $8 million in stolen goods from a single location — there was $1.6 million in stolen razor blades alone. And that $8 million worth of goods was only a tiny fraction of the tens of millions in goods believed to have been boosted by a single Bay Area ORC — that’s “organized retail crime” operation. When police served a warrant at the Concord, Calif., home of suspected ORC ringleader Danny Drago and his wife, Michelle Fowler, they found high-speed bill counters and $85,000 in cash. Bundles of $100 bills were found at the home of an associate. Millions of dollars of goods stolen from Bay Area retailers were recovered from a number of storage and processing facilities — goods that were bound for resale on eBay and Amazon, headed back into the retail market via corrupt distributors, or destined for overseas markets. The scale of the criminal operation is vast, and so is the scale of the law-enforcement response: Operation Proof of Purchase involved the efforts of more than 100 law-enforcement personnel spread from the California Highway Patrol to the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office, along with the sprawling and presumably expensive private-sector effort led by CVS. . . .
Facial recognition is not only being used to study old security footage — it is now being deployed for real-time analysis of customers entering stores. The idea is to spot thieves as soon as they come in, and, especially, to flag the violent ones. “Face recognition makes it possible to stop crimes before they start,” Trepp added in the LPM interview. This raises some pretty obvious red flags for privacy, something that might not be entirely welcome for people wandering into CVS at 1:00 a.m. to buy condoms and Monster energy drinks.
Facial-recognition systems and other biometric technologies are controversial. During the George Floyd riots, it was learned that law enforcement was conducting facial-recognition surveillance. After receiving bitter criticism, Amazon, Microsoft, and IBM stopped selling facial-recognition software to law-enforcement agencies, with Amazon and Microsoft promising to extend the moratorium until Congress enacts comprehensive regulation, which Congress has so far declined to do, while IBM quit the business entirely. (The European Data Privacy Board has called for “a general ban on any use of AI for automated recognition of human features in publicly accessible spaces, such as recognition of faces, gait, fingerprints, DNA, voice, keystrokes and other biometric or behavioural signals,” according to an agency statement.) All around San Francisco, modest shops and restaurants have signs reading “Smile! You’re on Camera!” But there is a world of difference between detectives reviewing security footage and an AI-managed biometric surveillance network that essentially runs a spot background check on everybody who enters a shop.
For the moment, COVID-19 has given professional shoplifters something very valuable: a mandate to wear masks in public. For years, California maintained a prohibition on public mask-wearing, but that law was overturned after a challenge from Iranian expatriates in California who wished to cover their faces while protesting the abuses of the ayatollahs’ regime. (The University of California at Berkeley has a policy prohibiting the wearing of masks by people for the purpose of “intimidation” — unless the masked parties are affiliated with the university.) Now, California maintains only a generally unenforced prohibition on wearing a mask while committing a crime. For comparison, New York State maintains a prohibition on “being masked or in any manner disguised” in public and has sometimes arrested people on those grounds, in some cases at the Occupy Wall Street protests. But the AIs have learned to read signs other than faces — “gait analysis” is another tool in the surveillance toolbox.
Criminals will find it difficult to hide. But in San Francisco, the victims are more interested in protecting their identities than are the criminals, who often are brazen, with no apparent concern for having their faces recorded. Store owners, on the other hand, are terrified, because these often are violent crimes as well as property crimes. An elderly woman operating a small shop in San Francisco’s Chinatown was exasperated by a thief who brazenly stole cellphone accessories and then returned a few hours later to “return” them for cash. She chased him off but a few hours after that he returned again to steal some more. That time, a shopper stopped him. A few hours later, the thief returned once more, but not to steal — he pepper-sprayed the shopkeeper as a warning not to interfere with him again. Others interfering with shoplifters have been beaten, stabbed, and shot. Unless storekeepers are actually murdered, city officials have almost no discernible interest in these cases. There have been few convictions or even prosecutions resulting from them.
So, there’s your super-appealing choice: sci-fi corporate surveillance state or Mogadishu in the Tenderloin.