BART defends mobile service shutdown to the FCC

Digital rights groups, however, say the harms of a disruption of mobile service outweigh the benefits

Disrupting mobile phone service is a legitimate tool for law enforcement authorities working against terrorism or other dangerous situations, a mass transit agency has said in defending its own mobile shutdown last August.

The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) District, serving the San Francisco area, has an obligation to protect its riders, wrote Grace Crunican, BART's general manager, in a Monday filing to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission. The FCC has been investigating BART's three-hour shutdown of mobile-phone base stations in some of its San Francisco stations last August in an attempt to disrupt a planned protest.

Mobile devices can be used to detonate explosives, Crunican wrote. "BART is concerned ... that it must have the tools at its disposal to protect that public from wrongful use of wireless devices, as they can be used as an instrument for doing harm to passengers and BART employees," she wrote. "A temporary disruption of cell phone service, under extreme circumstances where harm and destruction are imminent, is a necessary tool to protect passengers."

Crunican, in her comments to the FCC, included BART's mobile service interruption policy, which allows the agency to disrupt service when there is "strong evidence" of imminent illegal activity that threatens public safety, the destruction of BART property, or the substantial disruption of transit services.

However, several digital rights groups disagreed with BART. Blocking mobile phone service in an emergency may actually compromise public safety, as well as free speech, eight digital rights groups told the FCC in their own filing. There are no examples where a mobile service shutdown would result in more benefits than harms, said the groups, including Public Knowledge, Free Press, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Center for Democracy and Technology.

"Deliberately interrupting wireless service, in nearly all cases, will mean disrupting the communications of every person in the affected area," the groups said in a late Monday filing with the FCC. "Unlike the disconnection of a wireline connection, which can target an individual telephone facility, wireless interruption will necessarily prohibit the communications of completely innocent parties -- precisely those parties closest to the site where the emergency is located or anticipated."

Disruption of mobile service will "inevitably restrain" the ability of many innocent people to communicate, the groups added. Disruption of phone service violates the U.S. Constitution and telecommunication law, the groups said.

The filing from the digital rights groups gave several recent examples of other governments shutting down mobile service in efforts to disrupt protests. In the past year, the governments of Iraq, Egypt, Pakistan, India and Cambodia have all shut down mobile communications in the name of security, the groups said.

The FCC has been seeking public comments on the BART incident.

Verizon Wireless, in its own comments, said disruption of mobile service should happen "as a last resort" for law enforcement agencies. A shutdown can affect a wide number of users beyond the targeted area, the carrier said.

Several individuals also wrote the FCC about mobile service disruptions. "Shutting off cell phones will abandon children, elderly and those with no landlines ... with no way to call for help themselves," one person wrote. "You cannot endanger the entire population by cutting off the public's emergency access via cell phone."

Another person told the FCC that mobile service is a privilege, not a right. Protestors should not be allowed to abuse mobile services to intentionally disrupt public transportation or commerce, he wrote.

"It appears that our society is more concerned about liberties than being civil," he wrote. "I support the efforts of BART and other agencies to quell these anarchist groups before their actions and mischief cause greater public harm than that of a simple wireless disruption."

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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