S.F. subway muzzles cell service during protest

Activists thwarted after BART system shuts down cell service in advance of planned protest.

Elinor Mills Former Staff Writer
Elinor Mills covers Internet security and privacy. She joined CNET News in 2005 after working as a foreign correspondent for Reuters in Portugal and writing for The Industry Standard, the IDG News Service and the Associated Press.
Elinor Mills
5 min read
Anonymous flyer for anti-BART campaign following cell service suspension.
Anonymous flyer for anti-BART campaign following cell service suspension. Anonymous

The operators of the Bay Area Rapid Transit subway system temporarily shut down cell service last night in four downtown San Francisco stations to interfere with a protest over a shooting by a BART police officer, a spokesman for the system said today.

"BART staff or contractors shut down power to the nodes and alerted the cell carriers," James Allison, deputy chief communications officer for BART, told CNET. The move was "one of many tactics to ensure the safety of everyone on the platform," he said in an initial statement provided to CNET earlier this afternoon.

Activists had planned to protest the fatal shooting of Charles Blair Hill, who BART police said went after them with a knife before an officer shot him on July 3.

"Organizers planning to disrupt BART service...stated they would use mobile devices to coordinate their disruptive activities and communicate about the location and number of BART police," said the original BART statement. "A civil disturbance during commute times at busy downtown San Francisco stations could lead to platform overcrowding and unsafe conditions for BART customers, employees, and demonstrators."

The initial statement from BART said the subway system had asked the wireless carriers to suspend the service in the stations, but Allison later said BART itself pulled the plug and notified the providers after the fact.

A protest about a week after the shooting had disrupted service on BART. The move also follows reports that rioters in London were using BlackBerry devices to communicate with each other earlier this week. After someone at BlackBerry maker Research In Motion tweeted: "We have engaged with the authorities to assist in any way we can," the BlackBerry blog was defaced by hackers. One Parliament member suggested that BlackBerry service should be suspended in light of its heavy use during the unrest, but so far the service has remained available. Mobile devices and services like Twitter have also played a key role in protests throughout the Middle East in recent years.

Hackers were calling for action against BART in retaliation for the cell service disruption. The Anonymous group of online activists started promoting Operation BART on Twitter, with one profile saying: "We are going to show BART (@SFBART) how to prevent a riot #OpBART." It was unclear exactly what actions the group would take. Meanwhile, they also released a digital flyer with the headline "muBARTek," a reference to former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted after demonstrations earlier this year. One Anonymous Twitter profile claimed that "Egyptians are showing solidarity with Americans in the BART cell shutdown."

The BART statement about last night's event said "Cell phone service was not interrupted outside BART stations. In addition, numerous BART police officers and other BART personnel were present during the planned protest, and train intercoms and white courtesy telephones remained available for customers seeking assistance or reporting suspicious activity."

It's unclear exactly what effect the suspension of cell service had on the protest. The San Francisco Chronicle and KTVU, among others, reported that it appeared the protest failed to happen as planned.

Cell service was suspended from about 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. PT in Embarcadero, Montgomery Street, Powell Street, and Civic Center BART stations, BART's Allison said.

Sprint, Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile all provide service in the Transbay Tube, according to BART. The Tube runs beneath the San Francisco Bay, connecting San Francisco to Oakland, Berkeley, and other East Bay cities.

Asked to comment on whether the wireless shutdown was lawful, Allison told CNET: "We are well within our legal rights."

In a blog post, the ACLU of Northern California said this: "Shutting down access to mobile phones is the wrong response to political protests, whether it's halfway around the world or right here in San Francisco. You have the right to speak out. Both the California Constitution and the First Amendment to the United States Constitution protect your right to free expression."

The BART statement addressed free speech: "BART's primary purpose is to provide safe, secure, efficient, reliable, and clean transportation services," it said. "BART accommodates expressive activities that are constitutionally protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and the Liberty of Speech Clause of the California Constitution (expressive activity), and has made available certain areas of its property for expressive activity...."

"Paid areas of BART stations are reserved for ticketed passengers who are boarding, exiting, or waiting for BART cars and trains, or for authorized BART personnel," the statement said. "No person shall conduct or participate in assemblies or demonstrations or engage in other expressive activities in the paid areas of BART stations, including BART cars and trains and BART station platforms."

Protesters are angry over what they say is excessive use of force after the death of Hill, and of another man in 2009. A BART officer fired three shots at Hill, a 45-year-old transient, after Hill allegedly threw a bottle at officers and waved a four-inch knife at them. That followed a highly publicized fatal shooting on January 1, 2009, in which a BART officer shot Oscar Grant in the back as he lay on the ground unarmed and restrained. Video from cell phones and cameras went viral and fanned anti-BART resentment and protests. The officer was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter after claiming he meant to fire his Taser instead of his gun, and he served a two-year sentence.

AT&T spokesman Mark Siegel said, in regard to the wireless shutdown, "We have no comment on this. Suggest you speak with BART." A T-Mobile representative said the company had no comment and referred questions to BART.

Representatives from Sprint and Verizon either did not immediately respond to calls and e-mails seeking comment or said they were looking into the matter.

Updated 3:05 p.m. PT with info on Anonymous' anti-BART campaign, 2:30 p.m. with "no comment" from AT&T, 2:25 p.m. with BART saying the subway system--and not the carriers--had cut cell service, 2:15 p.m. with info on the BlackBerry's role in the London riots, ACLU comment, details on Hill shooting, and background on Oscar Grant death, 6:06 p.m. with "no comment" from T-Mobile and reports that say protest appeared not to happen.