A protest is scheduled today, 5PM Pacific Time, at the Civic Center BART Station in San Francisco. BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) finds itself in an escalating conflict with online "hacktivist" group Anonymous, in a newly minted digital challenge over First Amendment rights (see video above).
The protest began in retaliation for shutdown of cell phone service by BART Thursday night at several stations, a measure taken to disrupt planned demonstrations over a BART police shooting July 3 of a homeless man whom police said wielded a knife.
"We are Anonymous, we are your citizens, we are the people, we do not tolerate oppression from any government agency. BART has proved multiple times that they have no problem exploiting and abusing the people," said the hackers' website.
A press release on Saturday said that in addition to the “physical protest,” the group would:
Start a “Black Fax and E-Mail Bomb action”, filling every BART inbox and fax machine with copies of its message claiming the outage was unacceptable and posting hacked email addresses to Pastebin.
Take BART’s website down for six hours, twice the time BART shut off cell phones for (hasn’t happened yet).
Anonymous released thousands of names, email/home addresses and phone numbers hacked from myBart.org, a "satellite site" used for marketing purposes, operated by an outside company to send BART alerts and information to customers. The digital anarchists' core objection is to limiting free speech over social media, and officials’ efforts to control protests growing out of social networks they believe could lead to violence.
The hackers apologized "to any citizen that has his information published, but you should go to BART and ask them why your information wasn't secure with them…Also do not worry, probably the only information that will be abused from this database is that of BART employees."
BART has been criticized by civil rights advocates and one of its own board members for blocking cell service: "I'm just shocked that they didn't think about the implications of this. We really don't have the right to be this type of censor," said Lynette Sweet, on BART's board of directors. "In my opinion, we've let the actions of a few people affect everybody. And that's not fair."
BART defends its decision blocking cell phone usage on the grounds that the agency owns the property and infrastructure. "We fully welcome people who have different views and opinions, and we have a place to do that, but the platform is a place for people to get on and off trains," said BART spokesman Jim Allison.
BART has not ruled out shutting down cell phone service again, today, fueling the damage already done to the brand.
BART is the latest hacking incident for which Anonymous claimed responsibility. Last month, 21 people thought to be affiliated with the hacking collective were arrested by the FBI and British and Dutch officials for attacks on PayPal, after PayPal refused to to process donations to WikiLeaks. The group claimed to be behind similar disruptions to the Visa and MasterCard websites in December after the card issuers refused to process donations to WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange.
Issues of censorship in social media are increasing, fueled by the recent riots in Britain and use of Twitter and Blackberry Messenger to instigate flash mob crimes, and even reminiscent of tactics used by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak during the Arab Spring uprising.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation wrote: "BART officials are showing themselves to be of a mind with the former president of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak,” with tweets to that effect all weekend, labeled with hashtag #muBARTek.
"The idea that we're going to keep people from talking about what they might or might not do, based on the idea that they might all agree to violate the law, is positively Orwellian," said University of Michigan professor Len Niehoff, a specialist in First Amendment and media law.
The ubiquity of social media have upped the ante on defining the balance of power in a digital landscape where mass communications can mobilize and incite virtually instantaneously.