Black-Out Leads to Hack-Back
It has not been a good month for municipal riders of the “Bay Area Rapid Transit” or BART system in San Francisco, California.
On July 3, at the Civic Center station, a BART police official shot dead a man who appeared “wobbly” and possibly a danger to others. Locals immediately decried the shooting as massive overreaction; BART officials would say only that an investigation is underway.
This being San Francisco, it didn’t take long for anger to turn into street protests…and, as is the style these days from Cairo to Homs to London, much of that organizing was occurring online via the Internet and social networks like Twitter and Facebook.
The activist’s plan had been for a massive protest to flood all the BART stations and other Municipal Transportation Agency (or MUNI) properties, such as buses and trams on Thursday, July 11. Activists would coordinate actions via instant messaging, even sharing pictures and counts of the police force in presence on various MUNI buses, rail cars and trolleys for protest purposes.
But then…someone pulled the plug. Literally.
Officials with BART on Friday (Aug. 12) announced that they had shut down power to a strategic number of mobile phone towers, effectively cutting off parts of their system to electronic communications.
“This was not censorship, this had everything to do with public safety,” a BART official explained to the press after the fact. Many were unconvinced, telling the media exactly that. Says Gene Pilicinski, of Vanderbilt University’s First Amendment Center:
“This is new territory in the United States. Although courts haven’t addressed a government cell phone shut off, he said, “historically we have kept our hands off free expression. … The government has a very high ladder to climb.”
According to the Federal Communications Commission, it is illegal to intentionally jam or block mobile communications – the one on-the-record exception being the Secret Service, which often places a mobile blackout “dome” that disables communications near the President’s motorcade. However, by those same rules, it isn’t technically illegal to just turn off power to mobile towers, yielding very much the same result. Expect years of litigation to follow.
But MUNI’s decision didn’t take years to provoke a response. The hacker group Anonymous (who else?) tapped into BART computers Sunday and released personal information for about 2,400 BART users that were stored in the MUNI computers.
In a public release written in taunting Anonymous-speak, the hacker group excoriates BART police, MUNI policies, and – seemingly – the industry as a whole:
“They violated the people’s right to assembly and prevented other bystanders from using emergency services by blocking cell phone signals in order to stop a protest against the BART police murders. Lastly, they set up this website called mybart.gov and they stored their members information with virtually no security. The data was stored and easily obtainable via basic sqli. Any 8 year old with a internet connection could have done what we did to find it. On top of that none of the info, including the passwords, was encrypted.”
BART’s response was noticably less hyperbolic: “”We are sorry this intrusion into the myBART data occurred, and we notified those affected right away in case anyone tries to exploit the information,” they said in a release.
Protests in California may occur as early as today (Mon. Aug. 15) – it is unclear whether BART and MUNI officials will again try to tamp down protests by shutting down mobile transmission towers.