BART's Gamble on Safety Over Cell Phones

New policy outlines when the San Francisco transit agency can interrupt wireless service in underground stations

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Reuters

Public transit service disruption just got a whole new meaning.

Officials at the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District have adopted a new policy that determines when the agency can disable the antennas that provide cell phone service to its underground stations. The new rules clarify that BART can disrupt cell service to protect public safety and when “there is strong evidence of imminent unlawful activity,” as the San Francisco Chronicle reports.

The policy limits temporary shutdowns to "the most extraordinary circumstances" posing danger to public safety, destruction of BART property or "substantial disruption" of service. It includes two statements suggested by the FCC late Wednesday in response to BART requests for feedback.

The FCC, in a phone call, asked BART's staff to add wording that "recognizes that any interruption of cell phone service poses serious risks to public safety" as well as a section requiring "a determination that the public safety benefits outweigh the public safety risks of an interruption."

It’s all familiar territory for BART, which embroiled itself in controversy in August when it shut down cell service in underground stations in San Francisco to try to prevent communications that were leading to a protest and forced interruption of train service. For three hours on August 11, BART turned off its antennae in an effort to prevent the organizers of the protest from coordinating efforts to stop trains. The protests stemmed from the shooting death of a man by BART police earlier in the summer, which many saw as an extreme use of force.

The new policy outlines when and how the agency can halt service in the future, mainly by focusing on the potential safety concerns that could result from people disrupting trains. Its new rules [PDF] say that cell phone service should be interrupted “only in the most extreme circumstances,” which could include the use of cell phones as “instrumentalities in explosives; to facilitate violent criminal activity or endanger District passengers, employees or other members of the public such as hostage situations; and to facilitate specific plans or attempts to destroy District property or substantially disrupt public transit services.”

In addition to soliciting input from the FCC, BART also received advice from the American Civil Liberties Union on the policy, according to this post from Tech President. But the language remains fairly vague in terms of how these threats are determined. Given the amount of negative attention BART received when it cut cell service in August, it could be expected to use these new powers sparingly. But the mere fact that a public transit agency has an official policy about when to prevent its users from accessing communication networks should, on its face, be concerning.

Photo credit: Robert Galbraith / Reuters

About the Author

  • Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.