Bad Ideas, Crime, Cyberlaw, Free Speech, Police, Technology

San Francisco Subway Shuts Off Cell Service, Hackers Get Angry

I rode BART into San Francisco on Monday for dinner. As our train approached the Embarcadero station, the driver came on the intercom.

“We aren’t stopping at this station. Don’t want to drop you in the middle of a protest.”

So my roommate and I got off a block later and backtracked. We encountered a few clumps of would-be protestors wearing Guy Fawkes masks and bandanas. They might have been more intimidating, but many had hipster neck-beards curling out from underneath the masks. Mostly, though, there were a lot of riot police. A lot. Who were mainly just standing around.

The protest was in response to Bay Area Rapid Transit’s recent decision to temporarily turn off cell phone reception in four San Francisco stations, which was in anticipation of another protest, which was in turn a response to a recent police shooting in a San Francisco BART station.

Only in California do we have protests about protests. It’s all very dramatic, but where do law and technology fit in? As is the trend these days, pesky hackers broke into the BART Police Officers Association’s website on Wednesday and released personal information about the men and women who patrol the local subway system.

Read more about the allegedly horrible, no good, very bad policy decision that led to the hack after the jump….


No one is claiming immediate responsibility for Wednesday’s hacking of the BART Police Officers Association’s website and publicizing personal information of union members who patrol the San Francisco region’s subway.

The hack exposed 100 names, addresses and passwords of union members. The union represents officers who were the subject of several protests following the July 3 shooting of a knife-wielding man. And BART — the agency who union members police — received national attention in recent days when it became the first government agency in the United States to disable mobile-internet and phone service to quell a protest.

Basically, activists said preventing cell phone usage constituted a free speech violation.

BART authorities didn’t spark the First Amendment firestorm lightly. They got spooked after a bunch of uppity college students concerned citizens caused major commute disruptions and safety issues when they started jumping on top of train cars at the first protest in July.

The day before the police website got hacked, BART’s chief spokesman acknowledged that the idea to disable cell and mobile Internet service was his. He said it was a “gut-wrenching” decision.

I dislike police as much as the next young, progressive guy, but releasing police officers’ private information puts them at risk. It’s not a valid means of protest, at least in this context. And it doesn’t look like law enforcement will let this slide:

The union’s president, Jesse Sekhon, said he would ask the FBI to investigate the latest hack.

“These people are criminals and we’re going to forward this information to the FBI,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle.

For better or worse, the article says the hacker collective Anonymous kinda-sorta-might have something to do with it. The group is already on the FBI’s s**tlist.

As for the central issue of whether disabling cell service is a First Amendment violation warranting an FCC investigation? Give me a break. Remember that time long ago when people rode the train and read books instead of playing Angry Birds and tweeting about their breakfast?

As an earlier Wired blog post explains:

“You have the right to speak,” Damon Dunn, a First Amendment lawyer in Chicago, said in a telephone interview. “I don’t think you have the right to leverage your speech through technology that you don’t necessarily control yourself.”

Moreover, BART authorities didn’t do what they did to oppress few people with signs. Protestors were jumping on crowded subway cars. Sounds like a fun commute, right?

Then again, I just live here. To everyone coming back from exotic bar trips and summer vacations: Let us know in the comments if you think BART’s actions were justified.

Hackers Expose San Francisco Subway Police Data [Wired–Threat Level]

Christopher Danzig is a writer in Oakland, California. He previously covered legal technology for InsideCounsel magazine. Follow Chris on Twitter @chrisdanzig or email him at You can read more of his work at

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