Peaceful Protests Trigger Cellular Shutdowns

As Egypt did in January, police in the UK and the United States are shutting networks down

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Hi, this is Steven Cherry for IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations.”

The riots that have hit the UK this month are tied to large economic issues plaguing much of the developed world, but the trigger, so to speak, was an apparent shooting in the city of Tottenham by the police of a man named Mark Duggan. Weirdly, a month earlier, on July 3rd, a San Francisco transit cop allegedly shot a 45-year-old man named Charles Hill at the Civic Center Station, triggering a succession of demonstrations at San Francisco train stations. It’s impossible these days to talk about social protests without talking about social networks, and sure enough, UK newspapers have been writing about the “BlackBerry riots.”

Police had kept their eye on Facebook and Twitter, but according to the UK newspaper The Guardian, maybe they were looking at the wrong networks. The BlackBerry is the smartphone of choice for British teens, the newspaper notes, in part because you can send free one-to-many messages to groups of other BlackBerry users.

In San Francisco, police did more than look at Facebook and Twitter. This week they shut down cellphone service in four different stations in the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, popularly called BART. That’s because, the police said, they knew the protesters would use their phones to “coordinate their disruptive activities.” Doing so might violate regulations that govern wireless networks, and sure enough, the Federal Communications Commission [FCC] has initiated an inquiry into the shutdown, according to a report this week in the National Journal.

My guest today is Eva Galperin, who works at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, in San Francisco. She has the title “activist” there, but she used to be a system administrator in Silicon Valley before going back to school for degrees in political science and international relations from San Francisco State University. She joins us today by phone.

Eva, welcome to the podcast.

Eva Galperin: Hi there.

Steven Cherry: Eva, I’m sure the protests are big news in California, but the rest of us may not have been following this. This all started back in early July, but the protests have been going on through this week. Can you just take us through that?

Eva Galperin: Well, actually the protests began, I think, as early as last year, when there were other shootings by BART police of BART passengers. The latest shooting took place on July 3rd, and that is what the protest which took place in mid-July was all about. Presumably, the protest which was allegedly scheduled for the week before last, when BART turned off cellphone service in order to prevent protesters from being able to coordinate their activities, was related to the July 3rd shooting.

Steven Cherry: So yeah, let’s move on to the cellphones. What do we know about what the police did as far as taking down the cellular networks?

Eva Galperin: Well, the original story on the BART website—in their original statement they said that they had contacted the cellular phone companies and asked them to turn service off inside the station. But shortly afterwards they issued a revised statement saying they had cut off power to the service inside the station and informed the cellular phone companies after the fact.

Steven Cherry: So in other words they took matters directly into their own hands and did what they could do, which is affect the actual power.

Eva Galperin: That appears to be the case.

Steven Cherry: The police are saying that the protests in these already crowded transit stations raise a question of public safety. Is there a question of public safety?

Eva Galperin: Well, I think that while there may be a question of public safety, it is unclear what the protests were going to involve. No one actually showed up. No actual protest happened. So there was certainly no immediate danger to public safety, so I’m not really sure I buy that argument. Furthermore, the reason why cellphones were originally introduced to the BART stations, both on the platform and inside the trains, was as part of a reaction to 9/11. BART passengers saw how useful it was to have a cellphone in case of a citywide emergency—not only to contact 911 but to contact their loved ones, and their place of work, and the caretakers of their children, and all kinds of other things. And as a result of that they answered a survey in which BART asked whether or not people wanted cellphones at BART stations, and they said yes. And that’s how we wound up having the cellphone service in the first place, in the name of safety.

Steven Cherry: So in other words, if there had been protests, the ordinary transit users would be safer with cellphone service on.

Eva Galperin: It seems that that would be the case, yes.

Steven Cherry: Good. Eva, back in January, when protesters took to streets in Egypt, the government there shut down the Egyptian Internet. At the time President Obama called for Egypt to—as an article in the Wall Street Journal put it—“remove limitations on Internet access,” and it quoted Obama as saying, “A new generation of citizens has the right to be heard.” Are the circumstances in San Francisco in August a little bit like those in Cairo in January?

Eva Galperin: Well, it is notable that in Tahrir Square in January and February of this year, there was a point at which Hosni Mubarak went to the cellphone companies in Cairo and strong-armed them into turning off cellphone service in Tahrir Square, which is exactly the same. And when that happened, Mubarak made exactly the same argument that BART is making now, which is that is was necessary for public safety.

Steven Cherry: I noticed that in the videos of the San Francisco protests you can see the police themselves also holding up video cameras, so basically there’s just tons of video on all sides of every incident. And in fact, the police had platform video cameras that partially recorded the shooting. Is there sort of like a dogfight between police and protesters when it comes to technology like video cameras?

Eva Galperin: Well, specifically regarding the protest that BART sought to quash by turning off cellphone service, we’ll never know, because, again, no protesters showed up. There was no protest, and, again, the First Amendment rights of everyone in the stations were curtailed for something that didn’t even take place.

Steven Cherry: The reason I asked about the possibility of a video dogfight is I wonder if the same thing could happen with Internet access itself. I mean, the police—if they continue to turn off cellphone or Internet service, there are ways that the protesters could try and reintroduce it. There are Wi-Fi networks, maybe mesh networks that would give them access even without the networks that the police shut down.

Eva Galperin: Well, certainly now that the BART officials have tipped their hand and shown a willingness to engage in this kind of censorship, protesters can come prepared with ways to circumvent it, but at the time it simply hadn’t occurred to anybody that they would do that.

Steven Cherry: Do you think there’s any legal recourse? You used the word censorship, and if there really is censorship then maybe the courts can stop the police.

Eva Galperin: Whether or not the courts can stop BART from doing this is unclear at this time, but we are currently exploring all of our legal options, and furthermore the FCC has launched an investigation to see whether or not BART broke any Federal Communications regulations while they did this.

Steven Cherry: Very good. Well, it sounds like there’s a lot for concerned citizens to be concerned about, maintaining our civil liberties in the Internet age, and that’s what the EFF is all about. So thank you, EFF, for existing, and thank you, Eva, for joining us today.

Eva Galperin: Thank you.

Steven Cherry: We’ve been speaking with Electronic Frontier Foundation activist Eva Galperin about the new police tactic of shutting down phone and Internet networks during civil demonstrations and protests. For IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations,” I’m Steven Cherry.

This interview was recorded 17 August 2011.
Audio engineer: Francesco Ferorelli
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