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Could Google’s New Mobile Game Make the City Safer?

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By Beth Winegarner
Wednesday, Apr. 10, 2013

On any given night, Golden Gate Park’s Music Concourse is bustling with smartphone-wielding gamers, battling over virtual energy-spewing “portals” on the park’s landmarks.

Unlike the park’s usual complement of crazies, these gamers are playing Google’s new mobile augmented-reality game,Ingress. Although Google won’t divulge just how many Ingress players are in San Francisco, the game was born at the tech giant’s Spear Street office, and the city remains one of Ingress‘ most competitive zones, says John Hanke, vice president of Niantic Labs, the game’s design team.

Niantic includes engineers who created the technology underlying Google Maps, and Ingress is entirely location-based. Fire it up on your phone, and you’ll see a grid of the streets around you, lit up with portals centered on landmarks such as Lotta’s Fountain or Cupid’s Span. Players compete day and night to capture portals for their faction.

As anyone who reads the local papers knows, local thieves are making a pretty steady gig out of snatching smartphones from distracted users’ hands. Mobile-device theft continues to make up about half of all San Francisco robberies, says Sgt. Michael Andraychak with the San Francisco Police Department.

And nothing’s more distracting than a video game, right? But actually, there hasn’t been any spike in cellphone robberies sinceIngress launched last November, Andraychak says. In fact, Bob Lotti, who supervises the city’s park rangers, speculates that a game bringing more people out to San Francisco’s parks and streets could make those places safer.

Hanke agrees. “Our hope was to get people to use public spaces more,” he says. “It’s good for people to use them, and I think they’re safer when people use them.”

When those places are populated, particularly at night, it not only discourages no-goodniks, but people can report any suspicious goings-on, Lotti says. Local Ingress players report feeling no more or less safe when they’re playing than when they’re walking around the city with their phones out of sight — but some have stepped in when they came across a bad scene.

After Dexter Lau watched a nightclub bouncer punch a drunk man to the ground, he stuck around to make sure the man got help. Tom Campbell tried to intervene one night when an inebriated cyclist attempted to bicycle home, and also chased away a fellow Ingress player who had unsafely parked in a bus zone to play.

There are less-savory moments, too, as when meth users harassed Eisar Lipkovitz in portal-rich Clarion Alley and insisted he take a hit with them. Andraychak and Lotti urge players to use the buddy system and keep their eyes peeled for trouble. After all, “not everyone in Golden Gate Park is playing a video game,” Lotti says.

This article originally appeared in the SF Weekly.

Written by Beth Winegarner

April 10, 2013 at 11:26 PM

Infested BART: Inspection Reports Reveal Serious Pest Problems

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by Beth Winegarner
September 12, 2012

Trying to keep BART stations clean is akin to bailing out the Titanic with a shot glass.

For starters, you’ve got folks using elevators and escalators as their own personal toilets. Then there are the rats and the pigeons, skittering and swooping and excreting willy-nilly. It’s enough to drive a station agent bonkers, as we discovered recently when we examined a stack of station inspection reports.

June 12, 24th Street station: “RAT PROBLEMS MAJOR RAT PROBLEMS.”


June 19: “RATS RATS RATS.”

June 25: “Greeted this morning by the residential rat. Then a few early morning passengers (older females) were startled (she says it nearly gave her a heart attack) by two (2) rats (not mice). Rats running up down the stairs playing in the plaza (her words).”


Twice a day, BART station agents report how well service workers are keeping the concourse, platform, stairs, and conveyances clean. There are 20 separate chores each day, from wiping escalator rails to mopping platforms, says BART spokesman Jim Allison.

Station agents file these reports to provide an objective look at service workers’ performance. But the demands of coping with tense BART customers can leave agents feeling less than copacetic — hence the theatrics, Allison says. “Some are obviously upset about what’s going on at that station, and maybe emotions are running high when they write the reports.”

While investigating BART’s elevator-tinkler woes, SF Weekly requested a month’s worth of inspection reports for San Francisco stations. The results revealed a BART computer glitch preventing 13 days’ worth of inspections being reported (which they fixed once we inadvertently alerted them to it), 22 soiled elevators in the remaining 17 days, and a wildlife population that would pique Jeff Corwin‘s interest.

And it isn’t just the rats.

On June 5, at Powell, the agent reported, “Pigeons are nesting, having babies throughout the station.” There was so much pigeon poop, the report stated, that passengers were slipping around in it.

Throughout the month, agents at Colma station begged for more pigeon-proofing measures, pigeon-dung cleanup, and “DO NOT FEED THE PIGEONS” signs, which are not standard in BART stations. Rats are not an ongoing problem, and when they arise, BART hires an exterminator to set out traps, Allison says. Pigeons, on the other hand, are regular denizens of the transit system, prompting plenty of counter-measures.

“Pigeons are pretty resourceful birds, and they find a ways around a lot of the anti-pigeon measures,” including nets, spikes and barriers, he says. He doubted anti-feeding signs would be added: “There is probably more important information we need to convey to customers.”

This article originally appeared in the SF Weekly.

Written by Beth Winegarner

September 12, 2012 at 11:16 PM

iPads for School Lunches: SFUSD Woos Applicants with Prizes

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By Beth Winegarner
August 22, 2012

In public schools, there is such a thing as a free lunch. In San Francisco, it might even come with a free iPad.

Roughly 62 percent of local public-school students qualify for meal subsidies, but their parents have to file paperwork to make it happen. When they don’t, the San Francisco Unified School District loses money — $250,000 last year, for example.

Now, school leaders have dreamed up a new way to reel in applicants: prizes. This year, everyone who applies for meal subsidies will also have the chance to win fancy gadgets and memorabilia such as an iPad 2, an iPod Touch, a football signed by 49er Frank Gore, iTunes gift cards, and more.

It’s potentially a cheap fix for an expensive — and labyrinthine — problem. It goes something like this: Kids from a four-person clan that brings home $42,648 per year can eat at school for free. In turn, the U.S. Department of Agriculture gives schools just under $3 per lunch for every student who qualifies. But if a kid doesn’t apply, and then lunches for free, the school eats $3.

Some years, feeding kids who don’t pay for lunch or apply for subsidies has cost the district $1 million, says Dana Woldow, who chaired the district’s nutrition committee for many years. “We discovered this was a problem the first day there was a nutrition committee [in 2002],” she says. Nobody knew what to do about it.

There are a number of reasons eligible families might not sign up. Some undocumented families may fear that filling out the forms might tip off immigration officials. (It won’t). Or, the application may get lost in the tidal wave of paperwork families face when their child enters school, says Woldow.

It’s tough to nail down how many eligible students aren’t registered, since meal applications are the district’s only way of gauging families’ income levels, says district spokeswoman Heidi Anderson. But in San Francisco, where minimum wage is $10.24 an hour, every last clam from the government matters.

Money shortages are covered “out of the general fund, and is money that could be applied toward any number of unmet funding needs — including offering more menu choices to our students,” Anderson says.

SFUSD isn’t the first to try prizes. Baltimore City Schools recently gave away tickets to see Jay-Z,Kanye West, and Disney on Ice to families who filled out free and reduced-price lunch applications, though district spokeswoman Edie House Foster couldn’t say how many more applications they attracted. Locally, the prizes were either donated or obtained at no cost, Anderson says.

So far, it seems to be working: This year, 6,000 families applied before school started, which is unusual, Anderson says. Prizes will be awarded Sept. 1.

This article originally appeared in the SF Weekly.

Written by Beth Winegarner

August 22, 2012 at 11:30 PM

Schools not reeling in cash from film shoots

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by Beth Winegarner
Special to the San Francisco Examiner
Aug. 6, 2012

Superstars such as Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn have had some unlikely co-stars in their films: San Francisco public schools.

A number of films have been shot on local campuses, including “Hemingway and Gellhorn” and “Milk.” Although such projects earn the San Francisco Unified School District $880,000 a year, the majority of school-site filming is for advertising and corporate videos, which are not eligible for city programs intended to lure film crews here.

Clarendon Elementary played the part of a 1970s-era school in a Blue Shield of California commercial filmed recently, said Lauren Schwartz, owner of Kaboom Productions and producer of the ad. Parts of “Milk” were shot at Everett Middle School, while “Hemingway & Gellhorn” filmed at 135 Van Ness Ave., one of the district’s administrative buildings.

In April, San Francisco expanded its perks for film crews working locally. However, many projects filming in schools are too small to qualify for rebates, which could limit the amount of money the school district makes from hosting film crews, said Lauren Machado, film coordinator for the Film Commission.

Kaboom has operated in San Francisco for 17 years and has been pushing The City to include ad filming in its rebates, but it hasn’t paid off.

“I try hard to keep shoots here because I want to support the community,” Schwartz said. “I’m psyched we’re giving money to the public schools.”

The district accepts about 10 shoots per year, charging $82 an hour for the privilege, according to district officials. Much of that money pays for security and cleanup costs, but some goes back to the district, school board member Jill Wynns said. Crews also pay for city permits, insurance and other expenses.

“It’s great, as long as the money makes its way back to the kids and not into some administrator’s pocket,” said Michele Jones-Siegel, whose children attend Clarendon.

Kaboom donated extra funds to Clarendon, which Schwartz’s child will attend in the fall. Ed French, a San Francisco-based location manager who filmed a Chevrolet event at Claire Lilienthal School last summer, also donated to the school after his shoot.

“They don’t ask for that, but oftentimes it makes it worth their while,” French said of thedonations.

Crews are generally restricted from filming when schools are in session. “The district is very protective of the kids,” he added.

Rolling the cameras

Number of projects filmed in S.F. schools: About 10 per year
Cost to film in a school: $82 per hour
Film fees paid to SFUSD: $880,000 per year
City fees: $100 to $300 per day
Police fees: $104 to $110 per day
Productions citywide that applied for rebates: 9
Average rebate: $189,871.51
Maximum rebate earned by a production: $600,000 (“Trauma”)
Productions filmed citywide from 2008 to April 2012: 504

Sources: SFUSD, Budget Analyst’s Office

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

August 6, 2012 at 6:02 PM

Off-Leash Dogs: Owners Fight Increased Ticketing at Glen Canyon Park

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by Beth Winegarner
Wednesday, Aug 1 2012

One dusky June evening, a woman was reportedly jogging with her small, off-leash dog deep in Glen Canyon Park when a coyote snatched the pooch in its jaws and ran off. When Animal Care and Control responded, they couldn’t find the jogger, or what remained of her dog.

In response, Recreation and Park Department police handed out a rash of citations in the park, where it’s illegal to take dogs off leash, said department spokeswoman Connie Chan. But many who visit Glen Canyon’s untamed trails say they want the freedom to let their pets run free – and risk the consequences.

“I think it’s ridiculous for well-behaved dogs to get ticketed,” says Dan Balsam, a Glen Park resident who was handed a $118 citation in June for letting his terrier, Cosette, off leash. Cosette was so ill she couldn’t run. “Yes, it’s a shame that a dog got killed by a coyote. But everyone has been off-leash in that park. It seems like an overreaction.” He’s fighting the ticket.

In 2007, two coyotes in Golden Gate Park were “dispatched” — that’s police-speak for killed — by U.S. Department of Agriculture officers after the canids allegedly attacked a pair of leashed dogs.

Since then, ACC has gotten wise to the ways of coyotes, says Lt. Le Ellis Brown. “Now, that’s not how we handle wildlife. Dispatching a coyote is a last resort.”

Coyotes are naturally curious and protective of their dens, particularly during the April-to-August pupping season. Each time a coyote report comes in, Brown investigates whether the coyote’s behavior is “acceptable.” Following or chasing an off-leash dog near a den? Acceptable. Approaching an on-leash dog on the sidewalk? Not acceptable.

Tales of dog-coyote meet-ups are numerous. Jason Spain was walking his basenjis in Glen Canyon one foggy evening when he heard his dog, Jungle Jane, running with another dog. “When I turned around, I saw she was engaging with a coyote,” he says. “It wasn’t threatening, wasn’t growling or lunging. She was playing with it. I called her off, we leashed and left.”

Like many Glen Canyon regulars, Spain prefers to take his dogs off leash so they can sniff, wander, and get more exercise. He also likes the coyotes. “When I walk into that park, I understand I’m taking a risk. And I’m okay with that,” he says.

ACC, on the other hand, isn’t okay with that — particularly after a recent video emerged, showing a dog owner in Glen Canyon letting an off-leash rottweiler chase and taunt the coyotes. “We felt citing dog owners was in their best interest,” Brown says. “You guys are putting your dogs, yourselves, and the coyotes in harm’s way.”

This article originally appeared in the SF Weekly.

Written by Beth Winegarner

August 1, 2012 at 6:00 PM

Posted in animals, San Francisco

Occupy Bohemian Grove: Protesters Bond at Creation of Care

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by Beth Winegarner
July 25, 2012

When Mary Moore began protesting Bohemian Grove’s annual schmooze-a-thon and its nuclear repercussions in 1981, Occupy mastermind Micah White hadn’t even been born. But as Occupy’s twentysomethings joined Moore’s silver-haired Bohemian Grove Action Network under the redwoods to hear a firsthand account of the Fukushima nuclear plant meltdown and its aftermath, chanting “no nukes” suddenly seemed relevant again.

Every summer, 2,500 members of the exclusive Bohemian Club descend on the 2,700-acre redwood grove in Monte Rio for two weeks of “arts, music, theater, lectures, and fellowship,” according to spokesman Sam Singer. Critics have long decried the potential for backroom deals at the grove; in 1942, portions of the Manhattan Project were allegedly planned at the encampment.

“These are the elite men of the corporate, financial, military, and government worlds,” Moore says. “We’re worried about how their policies affect you and me. And we want to tell people how they make decisions — this isn’t how you learned it in civics class.”

Occupiers from Reno, Nev., Portland, Ore., Los Angeles, and across the Bay Area turned out on July 14 for the first Occupy Bohemian Grove event, dubbed “The Creation of Care” in opposition to the club’s “Cremation of Care” bonfire. Between protest songs, marching bands, and poets were a panoply of perspectives: Code Pink spoke out against the proliferation of drones; Project Censored lambasted corporate media.

“I want you to listen to the voice of Fukushima,” said kimono-bedecked Chieko Shiina, through a translator. The crowd paid rapt attention as Shiina described her life before what the Japanese call “3/11” — the day a 9.0-magnitude earthquake shook the island, leading to the meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

For more than a decade, Shiina grew her own food, bartered with neighbors, cooked on a wood stove, and chased fireflies with her grandchildren in the summertime. After the meltdown, her garden and firewood were contaminated. Her stove became “like a tiny nuclear power plant in my home.”

Local children developed chronic nosebleeds, colds, and diarrhea, which doctors dismissed as stress-related. Shiina wants to open a clinic to treat survivors like them.

“Every day we are living in uncertainty,” she said. The audience — baby boomers and millennials alike — erupted in a “no nukes” chant, fists pumping.

Of course, the Bohemian Club and its protesters operate in completely separate spheres. The club’s lecturers have included nuclear physicist and Manhattan Project founder Edward Teller, Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger, and Secretary of State Colin Powell. “The Bohemian Club is neither for nor against nuclear power,” Singer says. “It doesn’t take stands.”

This article originally appeared in the SF Weekly.

Written by Beth Winegarner

July 25, 2012 at 10:25 PM

Posted in Health, Sonoma County

Surprise: BART Elevators Are Filthy and Poorly Serviced

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by Beth Winegarner
July 11, 2012

Every night when Juma Muhammad comes home, his wife scrubs his wheelchair’s wheels with bleach before he rolls through the door. It keeps him from tracking human waste across the floors where his 16-month-old son plays, but it doesn’t protect him from skin infections he believes come from riding BART’s germ-ridden elevators.

Bathrooms in 12 BART stations — including four along Market Street — have been locked since 9/11. Instead, some folks use BART’s elevators as Porta-Potties, grossing out wheelchair-users, cyclists, parents with strollers, and anyone else requiring the lifts.

Muhammad, who regularly rolls through Civic Center station, wears latex gloves in the elevators but still got a severe facial infection after touching the buttons.

“This is a big public-safety issue,” says Jessie Lorenz, executive director of the Independent Living Resource Center of San Francisco (ILRCSF). “They say if there’s a problem to call the station agent, but they’re left dirty. It’s obviously not a priority.”

BART has 22 to 33 service workers on duty at any time, four of whom are assigned to the downtown stations. One of their jobs is to scrub the elevators twice daily, plus whenever they’re fouled, says spokesman Jim Allison.

“Nowhere is the quality of your work showcased better than in the elevator, where there is a virtual ‘captive audience,'” says a page from the BART service workers’ handbook. “John Q. Public should be able to ride our elevators without worrying about stepping on trash, foul odors, or rolling over unknown substances.” Mopping, deodorant soaps, and Lysol ensue.

The problem actually predates the 2001 terrorist attacks. Berkeley’s Disability Rights Advocates (DRA) led a class-action lawsuit against BART in 1998 over elevators’ frequent breakdowns and feculence.

“When we brought our case, 50 percent of the time, people who needed to use the elevators were encountering filth,” says Larry Paradis, DRA’s executive director. “They had floors rotted out from all the urine.”

These days, BART doesn’t track how often elevators are defiled or unavailable during cleanup. It does offer free tokens for the public loos on Market Street — another condition of the DRA settlement. Although there are eight restrooms within walking distance of downtown stations, they’re frequently broken or dirty.

ILRCSF has pushed for more cameras in elevators, helping BART police catch tinklers in the act. Violators face a $250 fine and up to two days of community service, Allison says.

It may be security theater, but BART plans to keep the bathrooms closed indefinitely. Meanwhile, Muhammad has dealt with the problem his own way: His wife now drives him to work.

This article originally appeared in the SF Weekly.

Written by Beth Winegarner

July 11, 2012 at 10:23 PM

Smartphone thefts give wake-up call

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By Beth Winegarner
Special to the Examiner
April 6, 2012

All over town, folks are tuning out the world and tuning in to their smartphones — playing games, checking email, sending text messages. They’re also making themselves sitting ducks for robbery.

San Francisco thieves stole 180 cellphones in 30 days this year, according to police Chief Greg Suhr. Plenty of those were snatched right out of people’s hands. In the Tenderloin alone, 38 percent of robberies in January and February — where items were stolen directly from a person — were cellphones, said police Sgt. Michael Andraychak.

Most smartphone robberies are crimes of opportunity, where suspects approach suddenly and either snatch the phone or use force and fear to take it, Andraychak said. In late January alone, suspects pulled off four such robberies in Glen Park, according to police reports.

One woman was holding her phone outside a grocery store when a suspect hit her on the back of the head and ran off with the phone. In another case, an 11-year-old boy was using his phone in the Glen Park Branch Library before a suspect followed him into the bathroom and took it from him.

Despite the risk of robbery, Chester Hartsough said he uses his smartphone frequently when he’s out to send text messages or check bus schedules. “I make sure I’m aware of who’s around me,” he said while using his phone to arrange a coffee date with his wife.

“It wouldn’t bother me to have my phone stolen,” Hartsough said. “It would suck, but I wouldn’t be scared or traumatized by it.”

But many victims of cellphone robberies definitely feel traumatized.

Art gallery employee Megan McConnell was waiting for a downtown bus after an exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art when a teenager grabbed her iPhone and ran. She chased him, but wasn’t able to keep up.

“I was angry and totally astonished,” McConnell said. “I got home and felt very violated. When I woke up to an email from my bank saying someone had tried to log in to my account, I felt even more violated.”

Smartphone use is unquestionably on the rise. One-third of adults own a smartphone, according to a 2011 Pew Internet & American Life survey. With that ownership comes increased use, which becomes habit-forming. A 2011 study from the Personal and Ubiquitous Computing journal found that smartphone owners briefly check their phones many times a day, particularly when they’re bored or waiting for something, like a bus.

“I think it’s individual addiction, but also a socially constructed problem,” said Leslie Perlow, author of “Sleeping With Your Smartphone,” due out in May. “When the phone beeps, you want to see what it is. There’s also a sense of feeling important, of being needed.”

Perlow asked 1,600 managers and professionals how they would feel if they lost their phones, and 44 percent said they would experience a “great deal” of anxiety.

To keep people from losing their phones, police recommend that people pay more attention to their surroundings, not use smartphones and other electronics as they walk or use transit, and not use the tell-tale white earphones that come with Apple devices, Andraychak said.

Not everyone heeds that advice. Christina Yu, sitting at a bus stop while wearing white earphones and texting on her phone, didn’t notice a reporter standing inches away from her.

“Yes, smartphone thefts do worry me,” Yu said. “I always make sure to keep my phone in a zippered part of my purse.” But she doesn’t take any precautions when using the phone publicly. “No, I just have it out,” she shrugged.

Tracking software can foil criminals

When a teen stun-gunned a woman in Japantown and stole her belongings, including her smartphone, the device’s GPS technology led police right to the suspect.

San Francisco police frequently attempt to track down stolen phones and other electronics. However, a number of things have to happen before that works — including installing the right software and obtaining cooperation from cellphone makers and service providers.

Liana Lareau had her iPhone snatched from her hands while she was waiting in line at El Farolito on Mission Street. But police couldn’t get it back for her.

“Sadly, I hadn’t activated the ‘Find my iPhone’ feature,” she said. “The police took the serial number, but I didn’t try very hard to follow up on it.”

Phone-tracking software is optional and must be installed by the user before police can take advantage of it in robbery situations. Such programs also let people remotely lock or erase lost or stolen devices, which can keep sensitive data out of robbers’ hands if tracking doesn’t work, according to Jen Martin, an Apple spokeswoman.

“Some phones can be located using GPS technology,” said Dan Newman, a spokesman for AT&T, which offers a secure website where a subscriber can trace a phone’s location on a map.

In addition, if the thief — or the company — turns off the phone, its tracking signals will go silent, foiling police efforts.

“Installing tracking software can be a useful way of following a stolen phone or laptop after the fact,” said police Sgt. Michael Andraychak. “However, our crime-prevention strategy has been one of education, and preventing thefts and robberies to begin with.”

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

April 6, 2012 at 9:43 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

School Lunches: Study Recommends a Joint S.F.-Oakland Kitchen

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by Beth Winegarner
March 7, 2012

San Francisco public school students haven’t eaten fresh-cooked cafeteria food since the Reagan era. In fact, many schools no longer have kitchens; some have no more than a closet-sized room where prepackaged meals are reheated. Sure, there are salad bars in about a quarter of schools, and health-savvy options like brown rice and whole-wheat pasta in others, but most meals served by the San Francisco Unified School District — supplied by Preferred Meal Systems — consist of entrees like waffles, chicken nuggets, pizza, and hamburgers.

Enter the San Francisco Food Bank. Last year, with the SFUSD’s blessing, the food bank commissioned a $180,000 study of the district’s student-nutrition program — a study mostly paid for by ConAgra and the S.D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation. The long-winded, labyrinthine results were delivered privately in December but have not yet been made public.

According to a memo obtained by SF Weekly and authored by Ed Wilkins, SFUSD’s food-service director, the study makes a number of run-of-the-mill suggestions for reducing financial losses, spiffing up drab cafeterias, and serving breakfast in more elementary school classrooms. But it also contains a whopper: SFUSD and Oakland Unified School District should operate a central kitchen where meals for both districts could be cooked from scratch. Wilkins wrote that the Food Bank believes the joint commissary “may provide the best possible combination of flexibility, cultural sensitivity, coverage, and efficiency.”

Many parents support a revival of from-scratch cooking, and some district leaders have long backed the idea of a central kitchen, or something like it. Board of Education member Jill Wynns tells SF Weekly that it might make a good item for future bond funding. But in his memo, Wilkins contests the recommendations — both for a joint kitchen with OUSD, and renovating the district’s own kitchens. He added that the Oakland plan would need “analysis of logistics and political feasibility.” Wynns calls it “a crazy idea” and criticizes the study’s failure to fully analyze the potential costs. And Wilkins himself notes that SFUSD is already exploring the central-kitchen idea at an unnamed school site — and seeking funding to make it happen.

Funding is key, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture only reimburses California schools $2.94 per lunch for the lowest-income kids. SFUSD already loses $3 million a year from its $18.3 million food programs, and paying cooks San Francisco wages could nix the whole thing, according to Wynns. But there’s a payoff: School meals offer “the biggest opportunity to provide critical daily nutrition to hungry and food-insecure children in San Francisco,” says Teri Ollie, associate director of policy and advocacy for the food bank.

If there’s one thing SFUSD and the food bank agree on, it’s the value of being tight-lipped. SFUSD avoided letting us speak directly with Wilkins, and both agencies refused to tell us when the study will go before the school board — and whether it will need to go before Oakland’s, too.

This article originally appeared in the SF Weekly.

Written by Beth Winegarner

March 7, 2012 at 9:41 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

Fare Hack: Exploiting a Clipper Card Flaw Is Easy

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by Beth Winegarner
Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Not that we think you would, but with a visit to Radio Shack you could hack into that Clipper card in your wallet, allowing you to load it with free rides or create and sell copies for profit — and funnel money away from the Bay Area’s crash-strapped public-transit agencies.

What it would take: an oscilloscope, an antenna, a transponder, a bit of know-how, and about seven hours.

That’s according to David Oswald, a Ph.D. student in IT security at the Ruhr University of Bochum in Germany, who broke the encryption in Clipper and similar transit cards last year. Clipper cards contain a chip that uses radio signals to talk to fare gates and the transponders on buses, making it easy to “eavesdrop” on the conversation.”It’s comparable to a professional thief who can open a safe by listening to the mechanical clicks of the lock. In our case, we are listening to electromagnetic fields,” says Oswald.

From there, a hacker can narrow down which key will break the encryption and gain access to the information on the chip. Lest you think it takes an IT degree to read the data, the Farebot app for Android phones lets you peek at the travel history and balance on your own card — or anyone else’s nearby.

The vulnerability poses “a severe threat to the security of real-world systems” that use the chip, Oswald wrote in a paper published in October.

Cubic Transportation Systems, the company that supplies Clipper cards, downplays the finding. “Cubic continually monitors card activity to determine if unauthorized modifications have been made,” says Derick Benoit, vice president of customer services.

However, Metropolitan Transportation Commission spokesman John Goodwin says card-cloning is possible. That’s a problem, since Andres Townes, a former employee of Boston’s Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority and later Cubic, was indicted for selling millions of dollars’ worth of cloned magnetic-stripe transit cards on Craigslist. Townes kicked off his alleged racket in 2007, before Cubic took over the MBTA’s transit-card system, but wasn’t arrested until 2011 — well after Cubic got involved.

The MTC has asked Cubic to finesse the Clipper system in light of Oswald’s findings, and Cubic is “considering this request,” Goodwin said. Cubic also plans to use a new, less-vulnerable chip in Clipper cards this year, but that still leaves over 1 million weaker cards in circulation.

“No smart card is, or will ever be, absolutely 100 percent hack-proof,” Goodwin said. “The goal is to stay at least one step ahead of the people that would look to take advantage of discovered vulnerabilities.”

That’s easier than staying out of cities with Radio Shacks.

This article originally appeared in the SF Weekly.

Written by Beth Winegarner

February 1, 2012 at 9:42 PM

Posted in San Francisco, Transit