CA transit agency under fire over wireless shutoff - CBS News 8 - San Diego, CA News Station - KFMB Channel 8

CA transit agency under fire over wireless shutoff

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This screen shot taken from myBART.org shows a page from the website after it was hacked by the hacker's group Anonymous on Sunday, Aug. 14, 2011. This screen shot taken from myBART.org shows a page from the website after it was hacked by the hacker's group Anonymous on Sunday, Aug. 14, 2011.

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — With the flip of a few switches, the San Francisco Bay area's transit agency shut off wireless service to thwart a protest and joined a raging debate over how far authorities can go to disrupt protests organized on social networks.

In San Francisco, free speech advocates say the Bay Area Rapid Transit agency went too far.

As BART officials prepared Monday for a rush-hour demonstration at its subway stations, they would not say whether they would cut cell phone service again. Like before, they said their primary concern was to ensure that passengers are safe.

"It's wrong," American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Michael Risher, whose group was scheduled to meet later Monday with BART's police chief at the agency's headquarters in Oakland. "There were better alternatives to ensure the public's safety."

Former BART director Michael Bernick applauded the move, saying it ensured a safe and uninterrupted commute Thursday night.

"Finally, BART said enough," said Bernick. "BART put its riders and commuters ahead of these protesters and the ACLU."

The incident last Thursday night helped raise questions about the role that social networks are playing in helping people, from Egypt to London, organize online. In the U.S., with its history of free speech, critics are saying BART's move was unconstitutional.

BART cut power to its wireless nodes Thursday night after learning demonstrators planned to use social media and text messaging to organize a protest against police brutality on one of the subway platforms.

The tactic appeared to work because no protest occurred.

BART's actions prompted a Federal Communications Commission investigation, and a hacking group organized an attack on one of the agency's websites on Sunday and posted personal information of more than 2,000 passengers online.

The group, named Anonymous, called for a disruption of BART's evening commute Monday.

"We are Anonymous, we are your citizens, we are the people, we do not tolerate oppression from any government agency," the hackers wrote on their own website. "BART has proved multiple times that they have no problem exploiting and abusing the people."

BART spokesman Jim Allison said BART has notified the FBI, and that no bank account or credit card information was listed.

BART officials, meanwhile, defended the shutdown of the cell service as a legal approach to ensure commute safety.

A protest last month on a San Francisco platform calling for the dismissal of the transit officers responsible for the July 3 shooting death of a man wielding a knife prompted the closing of one station and caused system-wide delays during rush hour.

Allison said the wireless outage was only for platforms and trains running under the city, places where protests are banned.

By Monday, a growing number of free speech advocates were calling on BART to renounce the tactic, with many calling the action an unconstitutional attempt to stifle lawful protest. Even a BART board member criticized the action.

"We really don't have the right to be this type of censor," said Lynette Sweet, who serves on BART's board of directors, said. "In my opinion, we've let the actions of a few people affect everybody. And that's not fair."

Risher, the ACLU attorney, likened BART's installing wireless networks underground as a passenger service to a government building a park. "Government's don't have to build parks," he said. "But once they do, they can't lock out speech they disagree with."

Risher said his organization is considering a lawsuit, but a decision won't be made until after the meeting with the police chief.

Electronic Frontier Foundation lawyer Lee Tien said he needed more information to decide whether a lawsuit was appropriate.

Regardless of its strict legality, Tien said the tactic was unsavory and compared it to former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak's shutting down access to the Internet in a failed attempt to stop civil unrest.

Bernick, the former BART director, said Northern California governments such as BART have been struggling for years with how to handle vocal political demonstrations that often escalate to violence.

BART and Oakland, in particular, have experienced several large-scale protests that turned into riots after a white transit officer shot the unarmed black commuter Oscar Grant on New Year's Day 2009.

BART officials said they are working on a plan to block any efforts by protesters to disrupt the service, which carries 190,000 passengers during the morning and evening commutes every day.

The BART computer problem was the latest hack the loosely organized group claimed credit for this year.

Last month, the FBI and British and Dutch officials made 21 arrests, many of them related to the group's attacks on Internet payment provider PayPal Inc., which has been targeted over its refusal to process donations to WikiLeaks.

Laura Eichman was among those whose email and home phone number were published by the hackers Sunday.

"I think what they (the hackers) did was illegal and wrong. I work in IT myself, and I think that this was not ethical hacking. I think this was completely unjustified," Eichman said.

She said she doesn't blame BART and feels its action earlier in the week of blocking cell phone service was reasonable.

Michael Beekman said he didn't approve of BART's move to cut cell phone service or the Anonymous posting.

"I'm not paranoid but i feel like it was an invasion of privacy," he said. "I thought I would never personally be involved in any of their (Anonymous') shenanigans."

The group Anonymous, according to its website, does "not tolerate oppression from any government agency," and it said it was releasing the information as one of many actions to come.

"We apologize to any citizen that has his information published, but you should go to BART and ask them why your information wasn't secure with them," the statement said.

___

Associated Press writers Terry Tang and Bob Seavey in Phoenix also contributed to this report.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

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