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Want Public Safety? Don't Disable Cell Phones

In response to outrage over last week's shutdown of cell phone service in four San Francisco stations on rumors of a planned protest, BART officials have repeatedly claimed their decision was necessary to maintain public safety. BART spokesman Linton Johnson has gone so far as to invent a new Constitutional “right to safety” which trumps the First Amendment. As it happens, we are in full agreement that BART has an obligation to the safety of its passengers. We believe that working cell phones throughout the BART system do not pose a danger to riders; rather, they help to promote public safety.

Furthermore, BART riders agree with us, and if you go back to 2001, BART officials do too. BART made the decision to introduce cell phone service to trains and platforms shortly after 9/11, in response to popular demand from BART riders who saw that New Yorkers had found cell phones to be invaluable to communicating with authorities and loved ones in the midst of city-wide confusion.

And safety isn’t just about emergency situations. Every day, we rely on mobile technology to communicate for peace of mind—such as when a parent uses a cell phone to alert a babysitter that rush hour delays will prevent the timely pick up of a child.

EFF voiced its strong support for widespread availability of cell phone and wifi service in our comments to the FCC about the proposed Next Generation 911 system earlier this year:

Communications technology has made us steadily safer and safer for over
a century by making it ever cheaper and faster to tell people who can
help about problems in a timely way. The 911 system is a great triumph
that represents an important piece of this puzzle, but another piece is
simply making communications cheaper, more reliable, and more
ubiquitous. Even communications channels that cannot contact 911
services at all aid public safety by increasing the chance that someone
who can help will find out about a problem promptly.

By framing this issue as a decision between communication and safety, BART officials have presented a false choice. As one BART rider commented in the San Francisco Chronicle, “Haven’t we learned from the World Trade Center attacks that communication in any situation is necessary?”

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