SAN FRANCISCO -- California Governor Jerry Brown's veto of a bill earlier this week that would prohibit government agencies from suspending cell phone service without a court order has drawn the ire of local privacy advocates.
Senate Bill 1160, authored by Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Palcoma), was drafted in response to the controversial actions of Bay Area Rapid Transit officials, who cut off mobile access in train stations last August and ignited a firestorm of protests.
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Though the state legislature passed the measure unanimously and BART also expressed its support, Brown stated in his veto message that the bill, which requires law enforcement to obtain a court order within six hours of suspending service, doesn't sufficiently take into account "emergency circumstances."
"We're really disappointed in the governor," Trevor Timm, a blogger with civil liberties advocacy group the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told The Huffington Post. "The First Amendment states that the government cannot cut off the communication services of American citizens."
In his veto message, Brown urged Padilla to revise the legislation to balance "protection of speech with the ability of law enforcement to utilize this tool in the protection of public health and safety." His office would not comment further.
Timm argues that in vetoing the measure, Brown in fact hurts not only free speech but passenger safety. Should service be cut off without warning, he said, "passengers won't be able to alert their loved ones or authorities to any sort of danger."
Timm added that the bill allows for a court order to be obtained within six hours after cell phone service is suspended, which he described as "plenty of time" in the event of an emergency.
BART officials cut off cell phone service during rush hour on August 11, 2011, an effort to stop a protest from snarling downtown San Francisco's evening commute. Demonstrators had planned to storm the train stations in response to the police shooting of a homeless man on a BART platform earlier that summer.
Ironically, authorities' efforts to quell the protest resulted in a series of subsequent protests about the service disruption, which rattled BART stations throughout the next month and caused repeated headaches for angry commuters. Infamous hacker group 'Anonymous' lent its support to the movement, organizing demonstrations and targeting BART officials in a series of online attacks.
BART adopted its own official policy on cell phone service suspension in December. It reads:
The District may implement a temporary interruption of operation of the System Cellular Equipment only when it determines that there is strong evidence of imminent unlawful activity that threatens the safety of District passengers, employees and other members of the public, the destruction of District property, or the substantial disruption of public transit services; that the interruption will substantially reduce the likelihood of such unlawful activity; that such interruption is essential to protect the safety of District passengers, employees and other members of the public, to protect District property or to avoid substantial disruption of public transit services; and that such interruption is narrowly tailored to those areas and time periods necessary to protect against the unlawful activity.
What exactly constitutes an emergency remains unclear. Timm noted that while cell phones were used to trigger the deadly terrorist attacks at train stations in Madrid and Mumbai, in both cases, the wireless networks themselves were utilized--which would have existed with or without service.
At a hearing earlier this year, BART Police Chief Kenton Rainey praised SB 1160. “I want to thank Senator Padilla for his willingness to understand the delicate balance of protecting the use of cellular communications but to also keep safe and secure the public transit system in the Bay Area," he said. BART officials declined to comment on Brown's veto.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation submitted a brief to the Federal Communications Commission in May urging them to formally declare that the government cannot interrupt wireless services. The FCC has yet to respond.
Padilla wasn't immediately available for comment as to whether he would rewrite the legislation.
HuffPost Live led a discussion on the veto during a segment this week. Take a look below:
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