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FCC reviewing SF subway cell shutdown

Anonymous plans "peaceful" protest and encourages people to use Wi-Fi and Bluetooth if BART shuts down cell service again.

Anonymous flyer for BART protest.
Anonymous flyer for BART protest.

Update 6:30 p.m. PT: So far, at least, the protests have remained peaceful. A dozen or so people showed up in the BART station at 5 p.m., chanting and occasionally blocking train doors. Police closed the station about 20 minutes later and threatened to arrest any protestor who didn't immediately leave. Entrances to nearby BART stations, too, were closed soon afterward (although people in those stations could board trains). A group of at least 50 people ended up at the Ferry Building. Trains now appear to be skipping the Embarcadero station near the Ferry Building.

The Federal Communications Commission said today that it's investigating a decision by government officials in San Francisco to pull the plug on subway cell service before a protest last week.

Also today, Bay Area Rapid Transit officials were bracing for a second protest scheduled to begin at 5 p.m. PT to highlight the civil liberties concerns raised by silencing mobile devices. Today's protest was organized by the group Anonymous, which appears to have been behind an intrusion into a BART Web site over the weekend.

It's unclear whether BART will disable service again. BART spokesman Linton Johnson told CNET this afternoon that he would not reveal his agency's "tactics," and declined to elaborate.

Preliminary reports on Twitter this afternoon suggested that BART police--the agency maintains a uniformed division, which was involved in a fatal shooting that sparked the initial outcry--would shut down the subway station where today's protest is scheduled to be held. The location, at the Civic Center BART, is adjacent to San Francisco city hall.

"I cannot talk about our tactics tonight because we are obliged by the Constitution to balance everybody's rights," BART spokesman Johnson told KRON TV this morning, saying that he would not reveal what BART plans are in preparation for the protest.

"We were forced into a gut wrenching decision" to cut cell service to protect BART users' "constitutional right to safety."

There is, however, no right to safety in the U.S. Constitution, only a right to speak and assemble freely--which, some legal experts say, BART violated. The word "safety" appears in the state constitution, but in a section that talks about individual rights, not police powers.

The move to shut down a communication channel, while regularly done in the Middle East, including Egypt and other regimes attempting to thwart pro-democracy and human rights demonstrations, is something previously unseen in the United States.

That's what appears to have captured the FCC's attention. "Any time communications services are interrupted, we seek to assess the situation," FCC spokesman Neil Grace said in a statement. "We are continuing to collect information about BART's actions and will be taking steps to hear from stakeholders about the important issues those actions raised, including protecting public safety and ensuring the availability of communications networks."

BART operators angered people when they switched off cell service in four downtown San Francisco stations Thursday in an attempt to prevent people from organizing and holding a protest of the fatal shooting of 45-year-old Charles Blair Hill on July 3 by BART officers in Civic Center station.

People are also angry about the January 1, 2009, fatal shooting of Oscar Grant by BART officers. His shooting--while he was restrained, unarmed, and on the ground--became highly publicized after video from cell phones and cameras went viral on the Internet. The officer was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter after claiming he meant to fire his Taser instead of his gun and served a two-year sentence.

To retaliate against BART, the Anonymous group of online activists defaced the site yesterday and released thousands of subscribers' names, e-mail addresses, unencrypted passwords, and for many their addresses and phone numbers too. And they planned a protest to take place at Civic Center station today.

A San Francisco Police Department spokesman said there will be officers above ground ready to help BART officers if needed. An FBI spokeswoman, meanwhile, confirmed that BART had contacted the agency for help in investigating the Web site hack.

Support that Anonymous had last week when it announced "OpBART," or Operation BART, may have diminished when BART users' information was released publicly yesterday. There was dissent even within Anonymous, which lacks a formal structure or hierarchy and seems to attract followers based on the target. (See this list of recent Internet attack activities.)

"The customer data leak was grossly irresponsible. But there is Anonymous and there is Anonymous. Some dumb apples here and there. That's it," someone controlling the AnonyOps Twitter account wrote to CNET today. "Many of us fight against this sort of action, but being we're leaderless, it's hard."

The Twitter profile also released this public statement: "Today's protest is about more than just today's actions. We're also trying to grow the public's appetite for protest. We want maximum exposure for this event and for others. We want the public to see that we aren't bad people."

AnonyOps and other Anonymous members were urging people to protest peacefully and to wear red shirts and masks. "Today's protest is about more than just today. Keep it peaceful and we will succeed in increasing the public's appetite for protest," AnonyOps tweeted.

Participants had created an Operation BART channel on UStream where they would post video and people could chat. Anonymous also released a link to what was billed as a live audio feed from BART.

And protesters were urged to use Wi-Fi and Bluetooth in the event that cell service is cut off. One Android app, Auto-BAHN, is designed to let people communicate via Bluetooth when cell service isn't working. However, it's not available in the Android Market and you need the Android software developer's kit to install the application.

BART created this page with resources for commuters who need transit information today.

Meanwhile, Joe Weiss, a critical infrastructure security expert, told CNET he was dismayed that people seem more concerned with hackers posting people's personal data than they do with problems that affect BART's operations and which could conceivably harm more than people's privacy. For example, BART's 28 trains were stopped for more than two hours a week ago due to a communication problem between two routers, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. "What led to the router failure remains a mystery," BART spokesman Johnson told the news outlet.

"Here you had two cases within a week--one you never heard of and it shut down the entire system," Weiss said. "While the Anonymous hack is front page."

Separately, Anonymous has launched an operation against the city of Fullerton, Calif., to protest the death of Thomas Kelly, who died after being beaten by Fullerton police last month.

CNET's Declan McCullagh contributed to this report.