In one of America’s top city for property crime, the Atlantic examines the “porch pirate” of San Francisco’s Potrero Hill. It’s an 8,000-word long read about how one of the neighborhood’s troubled long-time residents “entered a vortex of smart cameras, Nextdoor rants, and cellphone surveillance,” in a town where the public hospital she was born in is now named after Mark Zuckerberg.
Her story begins when a 30-something product marketing manager at Google received a notification on his iPhone from his home surveillance camera, sharing a recording of a woman stealing a package from his porch. He cruises the neighborhood, spots her boarding a city bus, and calls 911, having her arrested. The article notes that 17% of America’s homeowners now own a smart video surveillance device. But it also seems to be trying to bring another perspective to “the citizen surveillance facilitated by porch cams and Nextdoor to the benefit of corporations and venture capitalists.”
From the article: Under the reasoning that more surveillance improves public safety, over 500 police departments — including in Houston and a stretch of Los Angeles suburbs — have partnered with Ring. Many departments advertise rebates for Ring devices on government social-media channels, sometimes offering up to $125. Ring matches the rebate up to $50. Dave Maass, a senior investigative researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit focused on digital civil liberties, said it’s unseemly to use taxpayer money to subsidize the build-out of citizen surveillance. Amazon and other moneyed tech companies competing for market share are “enlisting law enforcement to be their sales force, to have the cops give it their imprimatur of credibility,” said Maass, a claim echoed in an open letter to government agencies from more than 30 civil-rights organizations this fall and a petition asking Congress to investigate the Ring partnerships. (Ring disputes this characterization….)
In some cities, the relationship between the police and companies has gone beyond marketing. Amazon is helping police departments run “bait box” operations, in which police place decoy boxes on porches — often with GPS trackers inside — to capture anyone who tries to steal them… Amazon sent police free branded boxes, and even heat maps of areas where the company’s customers suffer the most thefts…
Stings and porch-pirate footage attract media attention — but what comes next for the thieves rarely gets the same limelight. Often, perpetrators face punishments whose scale might surprise the amateur smart-cam detectives and Nextdoor sleuths who help nail them… In December, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas announced an enforcement campaign called Operation Porch Pirate. Two suspects were arrested and charged with federal mail theft. One pleaded guilty to stealing $170.42 worth of goods, including camouflage crew socks and a Call of Duty video game from Amazon, and was sentenced to 14 months of probation. Another pleaded guilty to possession of stolen mail — four packages, two from Amazon — and awaits sentencing of up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine…
While porch cams have been used to investigate cases as serious as homicides, the surveillance and neighborhood social networking typically make a particular type of crime especially visible: those lower-level ones happening out in public, committed by the poorest. Despite the much higher cost of white-collar crime, it seems to cause less societal hand-wringing than what might be caught on a Ring camera, said W. David Ball, a professor at Santa Clara University School of Law. “Did people really feel that crime was ‘out of control’ after Theranos?” he said. “People lost hundreds of millions of dollars. You would have to break into every single car in San Francisco for the next ten years to amount to the amount stolen under Theranos.”
In the article the EFF’s investigative researcher also asks if police end up providing more protection to affluent communities than the ones that can’t afford Amazon’s Ring cameras. But W. David Ball, the law professor, also asks whether locking up low-level criminals is just ignoring the larger issue of poverty in increasingly expensive cities.
“Everyone assumes that jail works to deter people. But I don’t know if I were hungry, and had no other way of eating, that that would deter me from stealing.”