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San Francisco Transit Company Spurs Protest With Attempt to Silence Protesters' Mobile Phones

BY Nick Judd | Monday, August 15 2011

The San Francisco Bay Area's commuter rail network, Bay Area Rapid Transit, angered many Thursday when it tried to thwart a protest against it by shutting down cellular service to passengers — prompting an attack on BART's website and calls for an in-person protest today.

The latest twist is an NBC Bay Area blog post about the existence of Auto-BAHN, an Android app demonstrated at the Defcon hacker conference this year that uses Bluetooth connections to link mobile phones together when cellular networks are down. This app, per the NBC item, could be a workaround for protesters if BART ever decided to disrupt service again. The thing is, the app isn't consumer-ready. There's no iPhone version, and while the Android app is available for download, it's not in the Android market — meaning whether you can get it depends on whether your mobile vendor trusts you enough with that device you bought to put non-market apps on it. (I could install it on a Verizon device; a colleague couldn't do it on her AT&T-provided Samsung Galaxy S.) There are other forays into this field, but Nathan Freitas, a developer who specializes in building apps that make it harder for censors to suppress or monitor mobile communications, tells me nothing is ready for the market yet.

In a statement released the day after its actions, BART said it "temporarily interrupted service" inside its trains in order to stop activists from coordinating their activities. According to reports, the planned protest was in response to a July 3 fatal shooting of a man at BART's Civic Center station by members of the transit provider's police force. The plan was to gather on the station platform — and, presumably, use mobile phones to keep tabs on how BART police were responding.

Over the weekend, hackers associating themselves with Anonymous broke into an online database that BART was using for one of their websites, MyBART.gov, and obtained names, addresses, emails and passwords — unencrypted! — for what BART says was at least 2,400 users.

In a release over the weekend that also promised the attack on BART's web presence, folks using the Internet identity Anonymous called for a full-scale activism campaign against BART for the transit provider's tactics, from black faxes and mass e-mails to a rush-hour intervention Monday at the Civic Center station — exactly the eventuality that BART had hoped to avoid.

In a curious twist of logic, the hackers then suggested that straphangers be angry at BART for poorly securing user information but not at them for then stealing it and publishing it all online.

But — speaking of illegality — a San Francisco Chronicle blogger is alleging that BART may have violated the law by shutting down cellphone service. The Communications Act of 1934 prohibits "willful or malicious interference" with radio communications, but no comment has been forthcoming yet from the Federal Communications Commission. Expect an update if that changes.