SF BART cut cell service to disrupt protests

The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system, a public transit system that serves the San Francisco Bay Area, admitted on Friday that it cut off cell phone service on several subway platforms in San Francisco during a planned protest on Thursday.

The subway operator said it was to guarantee passengers’ safety, but others don’t see it that way, with groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation calling it “a chilling strike against free speech.” The timing is also rather uncanny: The attempt to disrupt protesters by shutting down their ability to communicate by mobile phone comes right as the British government is discussing how to quell the modes of communication between rioters wreaking havoc in the UK.

BART shut off power nodes on the several platforms during busy commute times (between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Thursday) and told carriers that operate service in the area about it after the fact, CNET reports. The subway system defended its actions in a statement on Friday, saying that it knew that organizers of the protest — which regarded the fatal shooting of a man by BART police in July — would be using mobile devices to coordinate their actions and relay the whereabouts of BART police. BART said the action was “one of many tactics to ensure the safety of everyone on the platform.”

Cellular service was not disrupted outside of Embarcadero, Montgomery, Powell and Civic Center stations, according to BART. “In addition, numerous BART Police officers and other BART personnel with radios were present during the planned protest, and train intercoms and white courtesy telephones remained available for customers seeking assistance or reporting suspicious activity,” the subway system’s statement reads.

BART’s actions sound similar to tactics UK Prime Minister David Cameron has been talking about in the wake of widespread rioting in his country that have alarmed free-speech activists — shutting down access to Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites and even BlackBerry (s RIMM) Messenger when used “for ill.” The Guardian quoted Cameron on Thursday as saying:

And when people are using social media for violence we need to stop them. So we are working with the police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.

“I have also asked the police if they need any other new powers.

“Police were facing a new circumstance where rioters were using the BlackBerry Messenger service, a closed network, to organise riots,” he said. “We’ve got to examine that and work out how to get ahead of them.”

Of course this is not lost on many how eerily similar both the measures employed by SF BART on Thursday and the kind the UK government is discussing are to the decision to cut Internet and cell phone service in Egypt during demonstrations against the government in early January.

Image courtesy of Flickr user ol slambert