Your Two Cents: BART Defends Decision to Cut Cell Service

Photo by Black Hour

By now you know that BART temporarily shut down cell service on Thursday to interfere with a proposed protest over the shooting of Charles Hill. And now the agency is under a lot of heat.

According to CNET:

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.” … 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. “

The SFAppeal reports that BART didn’t violate specific FCC rules. And once you’re on the BART platform, “free speech isn’t so free,” says the SF Appeal report (read the Appeal’s excellent coverage of the cell jam).

What do you think of BART’s decision to cut cell service Thursday?


  • I think it’s appalling. BART police have clearly overstepped their bounds and are acting as a private paramilitary force rather than a civilian police operation. What if there had been a medical emergency on a station platform? What if an on-call doctor traveling on BART was unable to be reached and didn’t know he had to go perform surgery?

    The biggest problem here is that the protest didn’t happen. Even though anyone with half a brain or one collegiate class in statistics knows that the protest failing to happen indicates precisely nothing about the success of BART’s actions, BART is going to trumpet this technique as a victory because there was no protest.

    Third, this is now a social-engineering attack vector on BART itself: create fake social-media chatter about a protest, get BART to shut down cell phone service, and then use walkie-talkies or megaphones to organize your protest (or, worse, a real crime).

    Finally, if this is now an accepted avenue of “preventing protest”, where does this stop? If Facebook and Twitter say there will be a protest aboveground at Civic Center, is SFPD allowed to kill wireless service to a square mile of the city? If intelligence says a drug cartel is going to coordinate a massive run across the border via SMS, is CHP allowed to cut service south of San Diego on I-5?

    BART police are running amok and must be stopped. I would feel much safer were BART to disband its force of paranoid rent-a-cops and turn system security over to the professional local municipal police forces.

  • david vartanoff

    maybe BART officials need a lesson in Civics/Federal supremacy. The Constitution including the Bill of Rights is the founding law of the land.

  • b

    lawyers will argue that “congress” never made the law allowing BART to usurp our first amendment rights.. it wasn’t done by law but by policy.. welcome to the police state… until the citizens grow tired and forcibly remove these badge wearing thugs, we will not be free.

  • JG

    When did cell phone signal become a constitutional right? You want to speak freely, then speak. There is only cell phone service in the tunnels because BART had the infrastructure built to provide such service underground. Ah, those days of old before everyone gazed lovingly into glowing screens… We knew so little of freedom.

  • Alex

    I guess I see this as more of a censorship issue than a safety one. Cell phone service on BART is only in limited areas and it’s still relatively new. In an emergency it’s not inconceivable that one would fall back to the methods used only a few years ago (or methods used in other parts of the BART system). While I do agree that the comparisons that the EFF made to Mubarak are apt[1], I don’t think that the scale of the reaction is warranted. If BART had succeeded in shutting down service above ground, that would have been a much bigger issue (safety and censorship-wise) IMO.

    BART already indicated they had additional staff on hand to deal with the lack of service and potential protestors. Go figure. Is BART PD really that inept that their mere presence is not enough? Hmm.

    JG: Free speech takes many forms. Sometimes it’s posting a flyer on a telephone pole. Sometimes it’s literal speech. In this case it’s a cell phone. In this case BART moved to purposefully restrict communication between private parties. In this case I’m not hugely offended but I do see it as an awful slippery slope. With all the advertising on BART and upcoming WiFi service, what happens if one of the advertisers decides to pressure BART into blocking ‘offensive’ sites? What if BART PD were to start citing and/or arresting people for talking negatively about Dugger (see also: the Jasmine Revolution)?

    The thing that really chaps my ass is that BART has now made it supremely easy to enact a variety of attacks. Want a denial of service attack? Threaten a protest and they shut down cell phone service. Threaten to exploit a vulnerability in TranClipper, maybe they’ll shut that down for the day too. Want to create a security vulnerability? Simply threaten a protest at one station and all of a sudden the other stations are that much more vulnerable because the police resources have been improperly diverted elsewhere. Want to simply drain BART finances? Just threaten a protest and watch all of the overtime add up.

    The more I read about the killing, the more I do feel some outrage is justified (what’s this deal about the knife anyhow?). But… where was the massive outrage when Linton Johnson called for violence against TOs? Where was the outrage at the Fang’s stated intent to use BART to bring pork to the Bay Area? Where was the outrage at the OAC (talk about social justice issues…) This whole thing is really just demonstrative of the problems that have been ignored at BART for decades.

    1: So apt, in fact, I decided some crass profiteering would be in order: The revolution will be… merchandized.

  • Alex

    BTW, Sam, disbanding the BART police department does seem like a nice idea… except that it creates two significant problems:

    1.) Jurisdiction. BART operates in how many different counties? Coordinating all of that becomes a nightmare.

    2.) Professionalism. Are OPD or SFPD without their share of controversy? Wasn’t it SFPD that shot a wheelchair bound homeless man in the thigh AFTER he dropped his knife? Didn’t this same SFPD gut the program designed to train officers on how to deal with mentally ill folks? Didn’t this same SFPD (well, sorry, chief of SFPD now our illustrious district attorney… barf) indicate that the only real solution to deal with mental illness was tasers? This is a step up from BART PD how?

    Let’s start by at least trying to fix the problems at BART rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

  • Zach

    I think BART’s decision to cut cell service was unconscionable and severely undercuts our credibility around the world as a nation that promotes free speech and open communications. How can we demand that China stop its censorship of the internet or condemn Egypt for disabling cell and internet service when we do the same thing over the mere threat of a protest that never even took place?

    Personally, I’m not all that concerned with whether BART violated FCC rules or the Constitution somehow by their actions. BART is supposed to work for us. Whether they acted within the law or not, their actions amount to censorship and and show a clear lack of understanding as to how to serve the public that pays for the system and elects its leadership.

  • Rick

    I sent part of this via Twitter – but just in case –

    BART owns the equipment. They allow access to some carriers’ signals to transit via their equipment.

    BART is just like other public agencies [like, say – public hospitals] in that there is no “right” to internet or cell service provided by or via those agencies – especially if the use of that service impairs the passenger safety [patient health] or safe moving transit [hospital operations].

    You don’t use your cellphone on a plane when they tell you not to – why – because a) it’s their environment and b)there are [allegedly] safety concerns.

    BART’s no different. Their network, their rules.

    The protests may not have taken place because BART’s management of that network worked.

    Similarly, do you expect an electric or nuclear facility to allow you into their network to “tweak things” a little so you can make a political point? Really?

    Look, it’s essential to quickly & thoroughly investigate every officer-involved altercation with any passenger. We have to treat those investigations just as seriously as safe running, and the results need to become public.

    You would hope that no trigger was pulled until there was no other option available. And – it’s important to know whether the officer who shot Mr. Hill should have instead allowed himself to be stabbed. Or hit by the thrown knife – whatever.

    But let’s not be naive. It would be nice if the police had rubber bullets rather than lead ones. But none of the passengers I’ve ever seen carrying seem to have rubber bullets, either. Then again, I didn’t ask.

    What I do not think is fair is risking the safety of and preempting the lives of regular people by what seems to be a never-ending parade of “government victim actions.”

    If we cared about Mr. Hill as much as everyone seems to – then why are we talking about him in the past tense? Why instead didn’t any one of us intervene in his life and forcefully, if necessary – get him the help it sounds like he needed?

    Or was he just another drunken panhandler?

    • JimmyD

      Free wi-fi and cell reception in the subway is a gift, not a right.
      Can’t get shit down in MUNI.
      Maybe BART should just discontinue providing free service if everyone is going to act like they are entitled to it.

  • JimmyD

    Anonymous? I do respect you for the Wikileaks caper, but what you are doing to innocent commuters is wrong. Take your protest to the BART corporate HQ. Detaining and terrorizing commuters is not going to endear anyone to any cause you may have. AND! Can’t you organize a protest without cell phones? That’s just lazy.

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