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SF subway sets public debate on cell shutdown

BART, the transit system targeted by hackers after it cut cell service in its subway prior to a protest, posts a letter to customers explaining its position and announcing a public meeting on the issue.

Edward Moyer Senior Editor
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4 min read
A demonstrator at the August 15 protest. James Martin/CNET

The San Francisco-area transit system targeted by hackers after it cut wireless service in its subway prior to a protest, posted a letter to customers today explaining its position and announcing plans for a public meeting on the issue.

"BART's temporary interruption of cell phone service was not intended to and did not affect any First Amendment rights of any person to protest in a lawful manner in areas at BART stations that are open for expressive activity," reads the letter, posted on the BART Web site and signed by Bob Franklin, president of the Bay Area Rapid Transit District's board of directors, and Sherwood Wakeman, the system's interim general manager. "The interruption did prevent the planned coordination of illegal activity on the BART platforms, and the resulting threat to public safety."

The August 12 shutdown put BART in the crosshairs of hacking group Anonymous, which on Sunday defaced the system's Web site and leaked some customer e-mail and street addresses, as well as some customer phone numbers. On Monday, a protest organized by the group took place and BART service was disrupted during evening-commute hours. And on Wednesday, an unknown entity hacked into the BART police union Web site and posted names, e-mail addresses, home addresses, and passwords.

The planned protest that prompted BART's August 12 severing of wireless service was a reaction to the shooting in July of an apparently homeless man whom BART police officers said had come at them with a knife. The incident occurred as distrust of BART police remained high following the 2009 death of an unarmed 22-year-old who was shot by a BART police officer.

In explaining the cell shutdown, the letter posted today by BART cites an earlier protest, on July 11, as the cause of the system's concern about the planned August 12 event:

During [the July 11] protest, one person climbed on top of a train and many other individuals blocked train doorways and held train doors open. During the course of the event, which occurred during the peak of rush hour, individuals used BART trains to move between stations, and caused the shutdown or partial shutdown of other stations.

These actions violated the law by creating a serious threat to the safe operation of the BART system, disrupting the service of 96 BART trains (approximately two-thirds of the trains operating during the rush hour), causing the closing of stations, and putting at risk the safety of thousands of passengers and BART employees.

And later, the letter comments on BART's position on free speech:

For more than 25 years, BART has had a policy regarding the exercise of First Amendment free speech rights in areas of its stations where it can be done safely and without interference with BART's primary mission of providing safe, efficient and reliable public transportation services. To implement this policy, BART has designated the areas of its stations that are accessible to the general public without the purchase of tickets as unpaid areas that are open for expressive activity upon issuance of a permit subject to BART's rules. To protect public safety and provide safe and efficient public transportation, BART has restricted access to the "Paid" and "Platform" areas of its stations to BART station employees and ticketed passengers who are boarding, exiting, or waiting for BART trains.

In a tweet yesterday, Anonymous linked to a statement in which the group objected to BART's policies and defended the actions of demonstrators at Monday's event:

Given the entirely peaceful nature of Monday's protest, the presence of large numbers of heavily armed riot cops at future protests is unnecessary and inappropriate. Over 300 people protested peacefully, without a single incident of violence or property damage. No arrests were made. The excessive police presence is nothing more than a blatant, shameful attempt by BART to intimidate protesters attempting to exercise their first amendment rights.

The BART letter posted today concludes with news of the public meeting: "At a special Board meeting on Wednesday, the board will discuss the temporary interruption of cell service on portions of the BART system that occurred on August 11, and we invite the public to participate in this discussion."

Unfortunately, the letter doesn't say where the meeting will be held, but a PDF linked to from the Agenda & Minutes page of the BART site rather confusingly suggests it will take place at 344 20th St. in Oakland, Calif., at 9 a.m. PDT. And a report in the San Francisco Chronicle confirms this.

According to the Chronicle, "the board will hear from the public then discuss if it should set a new policy, which could impose an outright ban on turning off wireless service or spell out more specifically when a shutdown would be acceptable."

BART's Franklin told the paper, "This shouldn't be about inconveniencing passengers. Protesters want a policy change, and we should have that discussion in the proper forum."