Flash mobs are typically random performance art, not gatherings of criminals. I organized the first flash mob in Sacramento years ago. We put on tin foil hats and walked from the Crest Theatre to a nearby park to hear some music, then disbanded.
Armed with cellphones and connected through Facebook, bands of young people have been rushing into stores to steal goods or assaulting bystanders in a spate of recent “flash mob” incidents across the USA.
Philadelphia leaders imposed an early curfew on parts of the city this month after roving bands of teens beat and robbed bystanders during violent attacks across the city. This week, surveillance cameras caught several dozen youths swarming into convenience stores in Germantown, Md., and Washington, D.C., and stealing armfuls of snacks and drinks as the store clerk looked on helplessly.
The suspects in these crimes often connected via cellphones and share information on social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook, police say.
… Everyone agrees: It’s uncharted territory for law enforcement.
“You’re looking at an emerging form of crime,” says Sean Varano, a criminologist at Roger Williams University in Bristol, R.I. “We don’t know what power these police agencies have to monitor these websites or where do reasonable expectations of privacy start. “
A recent survey of 106 retailers nationwide by the National Retailer Federation showed that 80% had experienced multiple-offender crimes in the past six months and one in 10 had been hit by a criminal flash mob, says Joseph LaRocca, a senior adviser with the group. “These crimes are not new,” he says. “What’s new is the social network and Internet activity to coordinate these ad hoc attacks against stores.” He adds: “We’re still trying to figure out how best to address these issues.”
Addressing them is often tricky. Earlier this month, the Cleveland City Council proposed making it a crime to summon a flash mob via Facebook, Twitter and other social media. It was a response to recent flash mob violence in Cleveland suburbs that was mobilized by social media sites. Mayor Frank Jackson vetoed the proposal, saying the ordinance might infringe on residents’ rights.
“Use of this technology in a criminal way and how we react to it — without throwing away the Constitution — is a challenge we all have,” Jackson says. “We want to be responsible.”
One of the most controversial recent incidents occurred last week in San Francisco when a group of activists threatened to block access to downtown San Francisco subway stations to protest the shooting by Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police of a homeless man. Transit police shut down cellphone service at the stations Aug. 11 to quell the protests. The hackers group Anonymous responded by breaking into the transit agency’s marketing website and releasing personal information of more than 2,000 customers.
Shutting down cellphone service to combat protests — a tactic seen in Iran during 2009 election protests and in Egypt earlier this year during protests that eventually ousted president Hosni Mubarak— is not normally done in the USA, says Rebecca Jeschke of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit advocacy group for digital and electronic rights. BART officials called the tactic a legal way to ensure a safe commute.
“I’m deeply disturbed by the idea that a government agency will shut down cellphone service if they suspect there is a planned protest,” Jeschke says. …
via ‘Flash mobs’ pose challenge to police tactics – USATODAY.com.
This part bothers me the most:
… A recent survey of 106 retailers nationwide by the National Retailer Federation showed that 80% had experienced multiple-offender crimes in the past six months and one in 10 had been hit by a criminal flash mob, says Joseph LaRocca, a senior adviser with the group. …
I don’t think this is true, but perhaps of the 100,000 stores owned collectively by Wallmart, Target, K-mart, etc, there have been 14 flash mobs that were criminal (out of hundreds which were just goofy art). The way this is twisted makes it sound like a hidden attack on our constitution. I agree with Gene Policinski, executive director of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University in Nashville who says:
“We open up a dangerous area if we start empowering agencies to prevent us from speaking because it might down the road lead to something else.”