The faceoff between the group of hacker-activists known as Anonymous and the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) authority is a fresh parable in the mounting clash this summer between law enforcement and social media.
Already this summer, law-enforcement officials in cities from Washington to Las Vegas have struggled to rein in "flash robs" that involve mass robberies organized on Twitter or Facebook. Meanwhile in England, authorities are trying to unravel the role that social media played in fueling riots across the country.
Now, Anonymous has hacked into a BART website in retaliation for the transit agency cutting cellphone service Thursday to prevent protesters from using their smartphones to organize. And on Monday, Anonymous is calling for people to rally against BART – in person – in San Francisco at 5 p.m. Pacific time.
Together, these events point to a potential change in the way the disaffected express their displeasure with government, says Paul Levinson, a professor of communication at Fordham University in New York and author of "New New Media."
“The larger message of these assemblages of people, brought together through online invitations and publicized through Twitter and other new new media,… is that we may be witnessing a profound shift, even in democracies, from representative to direct forms of governance,” he says.
The Bay Area controversy stems from two fatal shooting incidents – one in 2009 and one on July 3 – in which BART officers shot and killed someone on a subway platform. In the first incident, in Oakland, Calif., the victim was unarmed. In the second, in San Francisco, BART officers say the man approached them with a knife.
BART had warned riders that protests last Thursday could interrupt service. As a precaution, BART cut its cellphone service, which keeps signals clear even in tunnels, in an attempt to hamper protest organizers. It appeared to work. No protests materialized.
But to the "hacktivists" of Anonymous, who see themselves as defenders of unfettered access to information, it was an attack on free speech. Anonymous responded Sunday by hacking into a BART website and posting the names, home addresses, e-mail addresses, and phone numbers of thousands of Bay Area residents that were in BART's database.
"We do not tolerate oppression from any government agency," Anonymous said in its note posted on MyBart.org. "BART has proved multiple times that they have no problem exploiting and abusing the people."
To some observers, Anonymous's hacking tactics are hypocritical.
“They have an ethical responsibility to treat others the way they would like to be treated,” says Villanova University communications professor Len Shyles. “Would they be happy if some group stole their secrets and publicized them for all to see? Clearly if you adopt the premise to not do unto others as you would have them not do to you, these people are in violation.”
Anonymous defended its action: “We apologize 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.”
Experts are watching to see how BART responds to Monday's call for protests.
BART spokesman Jim Allison told the Los Angeles Times that BART expects further attempts to disrupt its online presence and has brought in specialists from the Department of Homeland Security for assistance.
But Professor Levinson calls BART's move to cut service "a blatant violation of the First Amendment” and adds: “Governments would be wise to take this revolution seriously and not disable it by even a well-meaning but unnecessary limit on smartphones and 'flash mobs' in response to a summer of hooligans.”
Legal scholars say the clashes will raise the issue of where to draw the line between free speech and public safety, which may have to be cleared up in the courts.