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Censorship Communications Government United States Wireless Networking Your Rights Online

Government Asks When It Can Shut Down Wireless Communications 267

Fluffeh writes "Around nine months ago, BART Police asked to have wireless communications disabled (PDF) between Trans Bay Tube Portal and the Balboa Park Station. That was because they knew a public protest was to take place there — and the service to the underground communication system was disabled. This affected not only cellphone signals, but also the radio systems of Police, Fire and Ambulance crews (PDF) within the underground. This led to an even larger protest at a BART station and many folks filed complaints along with the American Civil Liberties Union and Electronic Frontier Foundation. The FCC responded by launching a probe into the incident. The results were a mixed bag of 'To protect citizens!' and 'Only in extreme cases,' not to mention the classic 'Terrorists use wireless communications!' But even if the probe doesn't lead to a full proceeding and formal order, the findings may well be used as a guide for many years to come."
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Government Asks When It Can Shut Down Wireless Communications

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  • by YodasEvilTwin ( 2014446 ) on Tuesday May 08, 2012 @04:22PM (#39933297) Homepage
    Yeah, it should always be never. In what situation would shutting down the cell networks be appropriate? Never mind the fact that government officials are obviously willing to use this merely to suppress free speech, so the process can't possibly be acceptable.
  • by betterunixthanunix ( 980855 ) on Tuesday May 08, 2012 @04:25PM (#39933359)
    There is no reason to give the government the power to shut down vital communication systems. Such power can only be abused and serves no legitimate purpose.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday May 08, 2012 @04:25PM (#39933365)

    Given the narrow scope of the question, isn't this precisely how we expect the deliberative process on such a question to work?

    Or is the answer always, "never"?

    Yes. Never.

    We are supposed to be a FREE and OPEN society. When we start restricting people's communications, their RIGHT to peacefully assemble (blacking out communications aids in restricting protests), and having this whole BIG BROTHER - LAW and ORDER mentality, we are heading down a very dangerous road. Just because you don't like what protestors have to say or what their issues are doesn't mean we should silince them or dampen their ability to organize.

    One day it will affect you - or a group that you agree with and then THEIR ability to protest will be curtailed - and there will be a precendent.

    That's somethign folks always forget, when you limit folks you don't agree with they're limitations will be yours.

  • by X0563511 ( 793323 ) on Tuesday May 08, 2012 @04:38PM (#39933611) Homepage Journal

    Hell they already have abused it. Witness the whole BART fiasco we are talking about.

  • Martial Law (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Bob9113 ( 14996 ) on Tuesday May 08, 2012 @04:51PM (#39933801) Homepage

    Seems like an easy answer to me -- the government has the authority to inhibit free speech any time they declare martial law.

  • by cpu6502 ( 1960974 ) on Tuesday May 08, 2012 @05:01PM (#39933963)

    They didn't shut it down for the same reasons roads are sometimes closed (weather emergency or major accident). They shut it down to censor free speech & prevent a protest. The air belongs to the People and they have a right to use it. They should never be blocked from using their property, except for a real emergency.

    (And before you claim the air belongs to someone else..... it does not. It is RENTED to companies, but the ownership remains with the people, from which all legitimate power derives.)

  • by SnapaJones ( 2634697 ) on Tuesday May 08, 2012 @05:06PM (#39934037)

    For me, freedom comes first. There is no reason to shut them down (just like there's no reason for the TSA or Patriot Act).

    But I agree that the whole, "I can't think of an explanation, so none exist." argument isn't logical.

  • by dgatwood ( 11270 ) on Tuesday May 08, 2012 @05:14PM (#39934161) Homepage Journal

    The only time it could ever be acceptable would be if terrorists were actively using cellular phones to control the detonators for explosive devices, and even then, it should be shut down only long enough to sweep the expected target area for such devices. In all other circumstances, it should be disallowed. In other words, very nearly never.

  • by tlhIngan ( 30335 ) <slashdot&worf,net> on Tuesday May 08, 2012 @05:32PM (#39934387)

    Yeah, it should always be never. In what situation would shutting down the cell networks be appropriate? Never mind the fact that government officials are obviously willing to use this merely to suppress free speech, so the process can't possibly be acceptable.

    Which means that any authority trying to make things more convenient for users should never, ever, do it.

    To know why it's an issue, realize that BART decided to install repeaters that they bought, and they operate so users of BART can have cell service where there was none before.

    If as a result they can never, ever turn them off (barring stuff like it breaking down), then the take-away from all that is to never ever bother installing them in the first place and let users just live without their cellphones for their journey. In which case the only way to get service is to have the users petition cell providers to install antennas that cover the dead spots. Of course, the authority owning the land will probably not allow them to install it on the premises (see above) so there will be dead spots where existing antenna installations cannot reach.

    I suppose that's the sad lesson to be learned - better to not provide, than to provide and get slapped with lawsuits should you fail to provide. And this applies to any place right now with bad cell service - including underground car parks and such where the building owner might want ot make their tenant's lives a little bit more convenient.

    Now, if it's the carrier's own signals then yeah, you can't block it ever...

    I don't disagree with the sentiment, but the flip side has to be considered as well. I suppose it's like providing a WiFi hotspot, deciding you don't like the crowds and turning it off, then being slapped with a lawsuit. Perhaps that's why government buildings don't have guest wifi.

  • by R3d M3rcury ( 871886 ) on Tuesday May 08, 2012 @06:16PM (#39934935) Journal

    So organizing a protest where Innocent people getting off trains could be pushed onto electrified rails or in front of moving trains is not significant enough?


    If your reason contains the words "could", "might", or "possibly", then it is not reason enough. And if you know that innocent people will be pushed onto electrified rails or in front of moving trains, then it might be a better idea to arrest those people who plan to do so rather than shutting off cell service.

  • by dgatwood ( 11270 ) on Tuesday May 08, 2012 @06:28PM (#39935119) Homepage Journal

    And shutting down the cell phone network will prevent them from pushing people in front of trains? No, it won't. In fact, quite the opposite; it will prevent people from calling quickly for an ambulance after they do push someone in front of a moving train. In most cases, the added risk to safety caused by shutting down cell service greatly exceeds the benefit.

    Maybe if we were talking about a team of gunmen coordinating a strike over the cell network, I could also see it. In general, the requirements should be:

    • A specific, credible threat to human life.
    • Evidence that disruption of phones would mitigate that threat.
    • Evidence that any delay in said disruption would likely result in additional loss of life.
    • Confidence that disruption of those phones would not cause a significant delay in determining the location of or otherwise responding to the threat.

    In other words, if it's the sort of situation where the police would break into somebody's house without getting a warrant first, it might be acceptable. Otherwise, you'd better have a judicial order.

  • by dgatwood ( 11270 ) on Tuesday May 08, 2012 @08:14PM (#39936137) Homepage Journal

    Bart knew the protest was coming and had stationed people with radios that worked on every platform. Just because civilians can not call 911 does not mean that an incident will not be reported by the BART personnel who are tasked to do just that.

    Which means exactly squat if the BART personnel are the first ones pushed under the train. And if there are enough BART personnel to mitigate that threat, there are also enough BART personnel to evacuate the platform, thus mitigating the safety risk.

    The protesters were sending out spotters and attempting to find stations that had fewer BART police in attendance. They were then going to call all protesters to these platforms. People were waiting on other platforms for text messages so they could get on a train and go to the designated platform. By shutting down the cell systems BART slowed down the coordination of this effort.

    By shutting down the cell systems, BART slowed the coordination of a lawful protest. Seems like a pretty clear case of prior restraint of speech to me. The protesters were not coordinating with the intent to kill people or cause people harm. The risk of accidental harm is present to varying degrees in nearly any activity you can think of. That does not make it rise to the level of risk sufficient to warrant shutting down cell service.

    A specific, credible threat to human life.

    Evidence of a coordinated effort to concentrate a large number of people on a few platforms which could credibly lead to people falling off the platform in front of trains and/ or onto the electrified rails and dying.

    Unsafe is not the same thing as a credible threat to human life. A credible threat to human life is an armed gunman threatening to shoot people. A credible threat to human life is not a bunch of peaceful protesters occupying a train platform who might accidentally fall in front of a train. A single person standing on the platform might fall in front of the train, too; the difference in risk is relatively small, and can trivially be mitigated in other ways, such as reducing the speed of the trains before they pull into the stations.

    Oh, and I should have added one additional requirement:

    • Shutting down cellular service must be the most straightforward, simplest, and least invasive way to mitigate the threat.

    If there is an easier or less invasive way to mitigate the threat, then shutting down cell service should absolutely not be allowed.

    To me the planned protests on inherently unsafe platforms is akin to yelling "FIRE" in a crowed theater and is therefore not protected speech.

    Not remotely. Yelling "FIRE" in a crowded theater is deliberately causing panic. A protest is just deliberately causing a large crowd. BTW, if the platforms are inherently unsafe, they should be torn down. I think you mean that the protests were unsafe because the number of people exceeded the capacity of the platform. This is a solvable problem. When there are too many people on the platform resulting from 300 people getting off the same train, shut down the platform until they clear the area.

    Further, I would argue that BART's actions were akin to yelling "FIRE" in a crowded theater. Had there been any sort of actual emergency, riders would have been unable to contact emergency services. Even if the BART personnel were able to contact help, the passengers' inability to contact emergency services would inevitably cause many of them to panic more than they otherwise would have, putting them all in further danger. In earthquake country, this seems like a bigger risk to human lives than having a few too many people on the platform.

  • by R3d M3rcury ( 871886 ) on Tuesday May 08, 2012 @10:16PM (#39937149) Journal

    [...] rights to assume safety in a public place, rights to peaceably assemble without violence of others, the right to leave trains without being harassed, etc

    You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. []

    I wasn't aware that the "right to assume safety in a public place" was in the Bill of Rights. Damn those activist judges!

    You do not have the right to shout "fire" in a crowded theater as the saying goes

    Actually, you have every right to shout "fire" in a crowded theater. However, you cannot use "Free Speech" as a defense if you are brought to trial for the deaths of the people being trampled.

    In short, I have every right to tell everyone to crowd into a BART station and shut it down. However, if someone is injured because of this, I can be held responsible.

    For example, you say that "Overcrowding of a station will very likely cause safety issues." Again, there's that weasel word again, "very likely" (which I missed above). Nothing assured. Perhaps there will be no safety issue whatsoever. But it could happen.

    Welcome to the exciting world of pre-crime! If something could happen, we must stop it!

  • by sjames ( 1099 ) on Wednesday May 09, 2012 @02:10AM (#39938267) Homepage Journal

    Overcrowding of a station will very likely cause safety issues.

    Funny how such arguments come up so frequently for protests and not at all when trains are delayed during rush hour.

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