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BART Director: Cell Phone Shutdown Didn't Go Through Proper Channels

Internal investigation planned, as the hacktivist group "Anonymous" threatens action against BART

A BART director said Saturday that the controversial decision to shut down cell phone service to thwart a planned protest did not go through the proper channels at BART.

Lynette Sweet said that BART's Chief of Police, Kenton Rainey, briefed the Board of Directors Thursday before the demonstration was scheduled to begin. But the tactic -- which has drawn unfavorable comparisons to the repressive Mubarak regime in Egypt --  was presented as a “fait accompli,” she said.

“I was offended that something this large -- and I don't think staff understood how large this was -- wasn't brought to us for discussion,” said Sweet. “We’re the policymakers.”

Sweet said the BART board would investigate the incident –- and hold discussions about the transit agency's policy on shutting down cell service.

“This is a transit agency, and our job is not to censor people,” said Sweet.

The backlash against BART has been strong, stirring debate about whether the transit agency violated first amendment protections and endangered riders. And now an online “hacktivist” group known as Anonymous, which took credit for a recent cyberattack against PayPal, is threatening action against BART.

“We will do everything in our power (we are legion) to parallel the actions of censorship that you have chosen to engage in,” the group warned in a communiqué posted on its web site. 

The group also called for a peaceful protest on Monday at 5 pm at Civic Center BART Station.

Using the name #opBART on Twitter, the group has encouraged others to bombard BART’s fax machines, emails and phone lines -- and file complaints with the Federal Communications Commission. 

BART spokesman Jim Allison said Saturday afternoon that he hadn’t noticed any digital disruptions caused by the group.

BART owns the underground network that provides cellphone service to riders on the platforms and in the trains. Allison said that BART has the power to shut down the cell-phone service “in the physical sense” and “the legal sense.”

While it appears that BART did not violate the specific federal law against jamming cellphone signals, it's not clear exactly what agreements BART has with cellphone companies or if BART has a written policy for shutting off service. Allison said that BART alerted the companies that rent space on the network, but didn’t ask permission to shut it off.

“It wasn't like we said 'Hey can we please shut it down?,” Allison said. 

The FCC has not returned repeated calls for comment.

The shutdown has cast BART in a negative light in news stories across the globe, from Al Jazeera to CNN.

Ironically, it was BART’s chief communications officer Linton Johnson who has taken credit for the idea to shut off service. Johnson told The Bay Citizen that he suggested it to BART police after a protest on July 11 snarled the evening commute. Demonstrators delayed trains and even tried to climb on top of one as part of a protest against the BART police shooting of Charles Hill on July 3.

Johnson said that the police didn’t have to take the idea, but they did, and he bristled at criticsms leveled from passengers and civil libertarians.

“It is an amenity. We survived for years without cellphone service,” Johnson said. “Now they’re bitching and complaining that we turned it off for three hours?”

Sweet, the BART director, said she disagrees.

“Linton has to know as a former reporter that people are supposed to be able to get information,” Sweet said.

Another BART director, Tom Radulovich, told The Bay Citizen Friday that he had mixed feelings about the decision to turn off the cell service.

“My gut tells me there’s something wrong with it,” Radulovich said. “But I also understand the fear about protests around trains. It puts themselves and other people in danger -- it’s very easy for someone to get pushed onto the tracks.”

It is still unclear if BART’s action did indeed hamper the protest. BART alerted riders early Thursday that a demonstration planned by the group “No Justice No BART” might slow the evening commute -– and BART police ferreted out a secret post on the group’s web site with details of the demonstration.

“They certainly gave indications they were going to conduct their protest in an illegal manner on the platform,” said BART Police Deputy Chief Ben Fairow. “They were going to be committing acts that were going to get them arrested, and they were giving instructions to text and phone your position when police got there.”

A few people who participated in the last BART protest showed up at Civic Center platform at the appointed time, but departed soon after. There was no evidence of a demonstration.

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