If you’ve been following our blog lately, you know that earlier this month we joined with 33 other state-based ACLU affiliates in filing a public records act request to uncover information about warrantless cell phone tracking. Oddly enough, just one week later the topic of cell phones and civil liberties has resurfaced in the news, though this time dealing not with the government tracking where you are, but instead cutting you off from communication altogether.For several weeks San Francisco has witnessed sporadic protests against Bay Area Rapid Transit – commonly referred to as BART – in response to the fatal shooting of a homeless man by a BART police officer last month. However, last week the story took an unexpected turn when the agency took the unprecedented step of shutting down all cell phone service for three hours at four stations in anticipation of an especially large demonstration.
If this strikes you as a poorly thought-out idea, it might not be surprising to learn that it was apparently dreamed up by the agency’s chief spokesman, Linton Johnson, as he lay in bed that morning, wondering how best to respond to an inquiry from the BART police, which asked employees for all ideas – “good or bad, constitutional or unconstitutional” – to deal with the impending protest. (His words, not mine.)
Rather than avoiding the headache of a mass protest, this sweeping and overbroad reaction by police has set off an even larger outcry from the public, drawing sharp criticism from editorial boards, prompting a probe from the FCC, and eliciting comparisons to former dictator Hosni Mubarak, who responded to protests in Egypt earlier this year by shutting off Internet and cell access. (Folks on Twitter have even come up with a new hashtag -- #muBARTak -- to use when discussing the events in the Bay Area.)
In a letter to the BART chief of police, the ACLU of Northern California noted the symbolism of San Francisco’s communications shutdown in relation to other recent events around the globe: “BART's actions must be seen in the context of today's events. All over the world, people are using mobile devices to protest oppressive regimes, and governments are shutting down cell phone towers and the Internet to silence them. BART has never disrupted wireless service before, and chose to take this unprecedented measure for the first time last week in response to a protest of BART police. BART's decision was in effect an effort by a governmental entity to silence its critics.”
Shutting down everyone's mobile phone service is not the right way to deal with a political protest, no matter if it’s in Egypt, Syria, or right here in the United States. Although new technology has given us exciting tools for communication, it has also created new potentials for infringement on our most basic rights -- be it through the warrantless location tracking of a phone, a mass service outage at a protest, or something else we've yet to even hear of. As cell phone use becomes increasingly ubiquitous, we all need to be more vigilant about maintaining our civil liberties in the face of such powerful technology.