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Calling All Protestors

​AN AREA transportation agency shut down cell phone service in August to prevent a planned protest from disrupting operations. No, this story isn’t about uprisings in Libya or Egypt. It refers to an August 11 decision by San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit Authority (BART).

The BART had a problem on its hands in the summer when numerous protesters were gathering at BART stations to denounce the July shooting death of a knife-wielding man by BART police. Protesters also cited the 2009 BART police shooting of an unarmed man. Although BART does have designated free-speech areas for protests, according to BART spokesperson Luna Salavar, a series of protests was targeting platforms and posing dangers for passengers. The events planned for August 11 appear to have been the breaking point.

BART issued a statement at the time noting that because a civil disturbance during busy commute times could lead to unsafe conditions, “BART temporarily interrupted [cell signal boosting] service at select BART stations as one of many tactics to ensure the safety of everyone on the platform.”
 The protesters had said they would “use mobile devices to coordinate their disruptive activities and communicate about the location and number of BART Police,” said the BART statement.

The unprecedented move successfully thwarted the protest, but its wisdom and legality have been questioned by civil liberties advocates, and it is being reviewed by the government and BART’s own board of directors.

Salavar told Security Management that “safety was the primary objective that guided the decision to temporarily interrupt mobile phone service for those three hours at BART’s downtown San Francisco stations.”

That makes sense to some experts, who say that the safety challenges that BART faces during flash protests on its platforms are severe. According to Dan Goodrich, a research associate and teacher at Mineta Transportation Institute, “Whether they are elevated platforms, or whether they’re tunnels, you’re dealing with a situation where you have limited space, and you either maintain control over that limited space or, if things degrade, you’re not going to be in a position to respond to medical emergencies, to maintenance issues, or anything else.”

Goodrich adds that if there is a surge of people on a platform, often the only place to escape would be out onto the tracks. There is also a diminished resource capacity in a protest; fewer security officers per person on the platform could make things more dangerous, he notes.

While Goodrich says that BART should have thought the decision through more (and consulted its board of directors) before deciding to interrupt mobile service on the platforms, he adds that its action under the circumstances may have been inevitable. Others say that what amounts to a cell phone shutdown should be saved only for the most extreme emergencies.

The BART board of directors agrees with that, according to Salavar, although as of press time, the board had not ruled on what types of emergencies would be considered extreme. Some situations are obvious. For example, “BART would consider an act of terrorism as one of the most serious of emergencies,” says Salavar. But the board was reportedly divided on whether the August 11 protest fit the description. The board is soliciting input from the public.

Several groups have petitioned the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for an emergency declaratory ruling on the incident. The FCC has told news outlets that it is looking into BART’s actions, but Goodrich says that since BART did not jam or block a signal, it should not be liable for a fine. “There’s nothing to say that you are obliged to boost a signal because you have the equipment.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation and others contend that cell phone access contributes to public safety and, therefore, the agency has an obligation to maintain such service.

Tanawah Downing, CPP, president of security services for Global Government Services and chair of the passenger protection subcommittee for the ASIS International Transportation Security Council, counters that argument by pointing out that the lack of cell phones does not create a dangerous situation. “In an event of a casualty or something down there, there are courtesy phones and other means of getting in touch with law enforcement,” he notes.

Beyond the safety issue, many civil liberties advocates believe BART’s action was a violation of first amendment rights, and some are concerned that the incident will set a new precedent for law enforcement and others who may start shutting down public communications under more circumstances. “I do think that it’s a violation of individual rights, although, I don’t think that having a phone is necessarily a constitutionally protected right,” says Downing.

Downing adds that the agency may have been pressed to take this extreme action because of the imminent disruption to operations posed by the protesters. He points out that Presidential Directive PDD-63 on critical infrastructure protection requires agencies to manage disruptions. However, Downing adds that due to its decision, BART has now made itself a “test bed” for this sort of situation and action in the future.