Getting Around BART’s Cell Service Shutdown (Updated)
Commuters and activists gear up to protest what they see as BART's latest encroachment on civil liberties: intercepting cell phone reception. A new app might offer a way to bypass the interception.
UPDATE: 40-50 protesters gathered at San Francisco’s Civic Center BART station Monday night, disrupting the evening commute. Maybe because of all the outcry it sparked when it shut down cell service last week (see below), BART didn’t try to interrupt cell service in stations this time.
Despite the fact that several stations closed for brief periods of time, the protest may have exposed the limits of hacktivist group Anonymous' in-person reach. From where I stood, it looked like members of the media outnumbered protesters. Many of the demonstrators donned Guy Fawkes masks, inspired by the movie V for Vendetta and now a symbol of Anonymous. When asked about his reasons for turning up, one masked protester told me: "It's not acceptable for democracies to suppress the freedom of speech of its citizens. That's what Mubarak did."
While some commuters understood protesters' aims, others were visibly annoyed. One commuter, whose trip was delayed, blasted the protesters: "I think it's selfish. This is not going to change anything. Who's the enemy here?" For more, read my colleague Jennifer Quraishi's first-hand account of how last night's events impacted personal safety.
ORIGINAL POST: Last week, protesters in San Francisco planned several demonstrations to mark the death of a man killed by Bay Area Rapid Transit police last month. The demonstrations were to be held at several unspecified BART stations. Attempting to curtail the protests, which in the past have delayed trains and, according to BART, posed safety hazards, the transit's leadership cut cell phone service—preventing the use of cell phones for passengers and those waiting for trains—in downtown BART stations for three hours (4-7 p.m.) on August 11.
The move, reminiscent of strategies employed by Middle East tyrants like Hosni Mubarak of Egypt or Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of Iran during recent protests in their countries, shocked civil liberties advocates as well as the cell phone service providers themselves. An AT&T representative, who preferred not to be named, said that service providers were in the dark: "None of the carriers had anything to do with the shutdown," he said. Wired reported that BART blocked the reception by shutting off power to the underground service towers.
Now, the FCC says it is looking into BART's actions. Neil Grace, an FCC spokesperson, said in a statement that, "Any time communications services are interrupted, we seek to assess the situation. 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." Indeed, the FCC, according to BART spokesperson Jim Allison, called BART headquarters on Saturday for informational purposes.