San Francisco to allow cell blackouts in ‘extraordinary circumstances’

A San Francisco transit agency adopted a policy Thursday to allow police to block cellphone service in extraordinary circumstances.”

Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) sparked a national controversy when it shut down access to cellular networks on Aug. 11 in four downtown subway stations to disrupt a planned protest over a police shooting.

That protest never materialized, but the cellphone disruption led to weeks of protests and several cyber attacks on BARTs websites. Civil liberties groups condemned the actions for curbing free speech and the Federal Communications Commission launched a probe into whether the action was legal.  

ADVERTISEMENT
After input from FCC officials and the American Civil Liberties Union, the BART board adopted a policy Thursday that will allow the agency to shut off access to wireless service if it determines that there is strong evidence of imminent unlawful activity that threatens the safety of [BART] passengers, employees and other members of the public.”

The policy states that potential examples of extraordinary circumstances” that would justify service disruption include evidence that cellphones are being used to detonate explosives, facilitate violent activity such as hostage situations or plots to destroy public property or substantially disrupt public transit services.” 

The San Francisco Chronicle reported Friday that FCC staff dictated language for BART to add to its policy. In a phone call, the FCC told BART staff to include wording that recognizes that any interruption of cellphone service poses serious risks to public safety” and a provision requiring the agency to determine that the public safety benefits outweigh the public safety risks of an interruption.”

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said BART took an important step” by adopting the standards, but did not give his endorsement.

The legal and policy issues raised by the type of wireless service interruption at issue here are significant and complex,” he said in a news release. I have asked Commission staff to review these critical issues and consider the constraints that the Communications Act, First Amendment, and other laws and policies place upon potential service interruptions.” 

He said the FCC will announce a public review of the legal issues surrounding cellphone disruption and plans to provide guidance to local governments.