updated 8/14/2011 8:02:47 PM ET 2011-08-15T00:02:47

Bay Area Rapid Transit district officials said they were attempting Sunday to shut down a hacker's group website that lists the names of thousands of San Francisco Bay area residents who are email subscribers of a legitimate BART website.

The Mercury News reports that the site, run by an external vendor, contains more than 50,000 names of people who receive news alerts and other information from the transit agency.

Besides the names of the subscribers, the group known as Anonymous, also posted the names, street addresses, email addresses and phone numbers.

"We are Anonymous, we are your citizens, we are the people, we do not tolerate oppression from any government agency," the hackers wrote in an online posting. "BART has proved multiple times that they have no problem exploiting and abusing the people."

The posting comes in response to BART officials on Thursday cutting off underground cellphone service for a few hours at several stations to thwart a planned protest over the recent fatal shooting of a 45-year-old man by police.

BART spokesman Jim Allison has said that the cell phone disruptions were legal as the agency owns the property and infrastructure.

BART officials on Sunday were also working a strategy to try to block plans by protesters to try to disrupt BART service Monday.

"We're making preparations to try to prevent any unsafe conditions on the platform," Allison told the Mercury News. "I'm not going to discuss any specifics, other than to say we're preparing."

Allison did not immediately return calls from The Associated Press seeking additional comment.

The American Civil Liberties Union has also questioned Thursday's incident. The ACLU has a scheduled meeting with BART's police chief on Monday about other topics and cellphone issue will added be to the agenda, spokeswoman Rebecca Farmer said.

Anonymous, which has claimed credit for many website hacks in recent months of local, state, federal and international government agencies, said in a press release, in part, "In the Bay Area, we’ve seen people gagged, and once more, Anonymous will attempt to show those engaging in the censorship what it feels like to be silenced. ... You do not censor people because they wish to speak out against the wrongs the wrongful things occurring around them.

"The Bay Area Rapid Transit has made the conscious decision of ordering various cell phone companies to terminate services for the downtown  area inhibiting those in the area from using cell phones — even in the case of an emergency."

Civil rights, legal experts question BART action
Since the cutoff happened, civil rights and legal experts questioned the agency's move, and drew backlash from one transit board member who was taken aback by the decision.

"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, who serves 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."

Similar questions of censorship have arisen in recent days as Britain's government put the idea of curbing social media services on the table in response to several nights of widespread looting and violence in London and other English cities. Police claim that young criminals used Twitter and Blackberry instant messages to coordinate looting sprees in riots.

Prime Minister David Cameron said that the government, spy agencies and the communications industry are looking at whether there should be limits on the use of social media sites like Twitter and Facebook or services like BlackBerry Messenger to spread disorder. The suggestions have met with outrage — with some critics comparing Cameron to the despots ousted during the Arab Spring.

In the San Francisco instance, Sweet said BART board members were told by the agency of its decision during the closed portion of its meeting Thursday afternoon, less than three hours before the protest was scheduled to start.

"It was almost like an afterthought," Sweet told The Associated Press. "This is a land of free speech and for us to think we can do that shows we've grown well beyond the business of what we're supposed to be doing and that's providing transportation. Not censorship."

But there are nuances to consider, including under what conditions, if any, an agency like BART can act to deny the public access to a form of communication — and essentially decide that a perceived threat to public safety trumps free speech.

These situations are largely new ones, of course. A couple of decades ago, during the fax-machine and pay-phone era, the notion of people organizing mass gatherings in real time on wireless devices would have been fantasy.

Issue of public's well-being
BART Deputy Police Chief Benson Fairow said the issue boiled down to the public's well-being.

"It wasn't a decision made lightly. This wasn't about free speech. It was about safety," Fairow told KTVU-TV on Friday.

BART spokesman Allison said while the agency they didn't need the permission of cellphone carriers to temporarily cut service, they notified them as a courtesy.

The decision was made after agency officials saw details about the protest on an organizer's website. He said the agency had extra staff and officers aboard trains during that time for anybody who wanted to report an emergency, as well as courtesy phones on station platforms.

"I think the entire argument is that some people think it created an unsafe situation is faulty logic," Allison said. "BART had operated for 35 years without cellphone service and no one ever suggested back then that a lack of it made it difficult to report emergencies and we had the same infrastructure in place."

But as in London, BART's tactic drew immediate comparisons to authoritarianism, including acts by the former president of Egypt to squelch protests demanding an end to his rule. Authorities there cut Internet and cellphone services in the country for days earlier this year. He left office shortly thereafter.

"BART officials are showing themselves to be of a mind with the former president of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak," the Electronic Frontier Foundation said on its website. Echoing that comparison, vigorous weekend discussion on Twitter was labeled with the hashtag "muBARTek."

Aaron Caplan, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles who specializes in free-speech issues, was equally critical, saying BART clearly violated the rights of demonstrators and other passengers.

"We can arrest and prosecute people for the crimes they commit," he said. "You are not allowed to shut down people's cellphones and prevent them from speaking because you think they might commit a crime in the future."

Michael Risher, the ACLU's Northern California staff attorney, echoed the sentiment in a blog: "The government shouldn't be in the business of cutting off the free flow of information. Shutting down access to mobile phones is the wrong response to political protests, whether it's halfway around the world or right here in San Francisco."

On Saturday at a station where cell phone service was disrupted, passenger Phil Eager, 44, shared the opinion that BART's approach seemed exaggerated.

"It struck me as pretty strange and kind of extreme," said Eager, a San Francisco attorney. "It's not a First Amendment debate, but rather a civil liberties issue."

Eager said many of his friends riding BART on Thursday were upset with the agency's actions, some even calling it a "police state."

Mark Malmberg, 58, of Orinda, Calif., believes that BART could've used a different approach instead of shutting down cellphone usage.

"Even though it sounds like they wanted to avoid a mob gathering, you can't stop people from expressing themselves," Malmberg said. "I hope those who protest can do so in a civil manner."

'High standard' for agency like BART
But others said that while the phone shutdown was worth examining, it may not have impinged on First Amendment rights. Gene Policinski, executive director of the First Amendment Center, a nonprofit educational organization, said freedom of expression can be limited in very narrow circumstances if there is an immediate threat to public safety.

"An agency like BART has to be held to a very high standard," he said. "First of all, it has to be an immediate threat, not just the mere supposition that there might be one. And I think the response has to be what a court would consider reasonable, so it has to be the minimum amount of restraint on free expression."

He said if BART's actions are challenged, a court may look more favorably on what it did if expression was limited on a narrow basis for a specific area and time frame, instead of "just indiscriminately closing down cellphone service throughout the system or for a broad area."

University of Michigan law professor Len Niehoff, who specializes in First Amendment and media law issues, found the BART actions troublesome for a few reasons.

He said the First Amendment generally doesn't allow the government to restrict free speech because somebody might do something illegal or to prohibit conversations based on their subject matter. He said the BART actions have been portrayed as an effort to prevent a protest that would have violated the law, but there was no guarantee that would have happened.

"What it really did is it prevented people from talking, discussing ... and mobilizing in any form, peaceful or unpeaceful, lawful or unlawful," he said. "That is, constitutionally, very problematic."

The government does have the right to break up a demonstration if it forms in an area where protests are prohibited and poses a risk to public safety, Niehoff said. But it should not prohibit free speech to prevent the possibility of a protest happening.

"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," he said.

Msnbc.com contributed to this report.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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