Use the Wi-Fi and Smile for the Camera: LinkNYC Kiosks Come Uptown

By Deanna Paul (originally on theuptowner.com)

Futuristic data-collecting towers called Links have popped up throughout Manhattan to offer free public Wi-Fi, including 13 kiosks in Washington Heights, on Amsterdam Avenue and Broadway between West 156th and 162nd Streets.

By standing near a LinkNYC kiosk, any passerby can access an automatic high-speed internet connection. The Links also have keypads for making free phone calls, and display screens providing neighborhood information and public notices.

Over the next several years, New York will have over 7,000 Links throughout the five boroughs. Since launching, more than 2.6 million people have registered to use the Wi-Fi, according to Jennifer Hensley, general manager of LinkNYC.

So far, uptown Manhattan has more links than any other city neighborhood, said  Clayton Banks, CEO of Silicon Harlem. Third Avenue, Eighth Avenue and Broadway have the highest density, with many more to come, part of a franchise the city granted to the CityBridge consortium.

CityBridge will cover the costs of building LinkNYC, an estimated $300 million, Hensley said, and also pay to maintain the Links with revenue from advertising; it has promised the city $500 million over 12 years from ad sales. Sidewalk Labs, a Google subsidiary, is a key investor in Intersection, one of the CityBridge partners.

But what appears a technological advance has sparked debate about how collected data will be used and whether communities should be able to respond. In Brooklyn, residents circulated petitions opposing the kiosks, complaining about their surveillance. In addition to Wi-Fi and USB charging ports, the kiosks have built-in cameras.

“I avoid the kiosks like the plague,” says Grey Cohen, a member of the Cypurr Collective, a group of tech-minded New Yorkers with cyber-safety concerns. “I just don’t trust them.” On a bike or on foot, he tries to keep his distance.

Others views the system as a neighborhood benefit, however.

“My phone died on my way to a meeting and I needed to make a call. The kiosk was there, so I was able to link up and take care of it,” said Banks of Silicon Harlem, which aims to transform Harlem and other urban neighborhoods into innovation and technology hubs.

Banks has supported the Links and advocates installing them across upper Manhattan, including central and East Harlem.

“Whatever the issue is anywhere else, upper Manhattan has double the issue,” says Banks. “In most New York City areas, 20 percent of residents don’t have access to broadband. In upper Manhattan, we’re at 40 percent.” Because so many locals lack connectivity, he says, the neighborhood needs low-cost, high-speed broadband, and LinkNYC helps fill that gap.

“As a technologist I see it from all sides,” says Theo Chino, entrepreneur, software developer and digital privacy advocate. “I know how important having access to the internet is — to find a job, just to fill out an application. It’s a utility. It’s not a luxury today.”

Creating access to technology in otherwise disconnected communities is an undisputed benefit of the program. LinkNYC supporters and adversaries agree that New Yorkers should have free Wi-Fi access. One Cypurr Collective member has gone so far as to call internet access a human right.

“Only having access when a public library is open is a problem,” says Chino. “The flip side of the coin is the lack of knowledge for where that data is being used. That’s where Rethink LinkNYC is very vocal.”

The advocacy group Rethink LinkNYC argues that LinkNYC isn’t community Wi-Fi, but corporate exploitation and mass surveillance, boxed and marketed as free Wi-Fi.

Link kiosk cameras and Bluetooth beacon systems enable the machines to follow signals from cellular devices. “Anyone who has access to the cameras can track you down,” says Chino. In several Manhattan neighborhoods, residents have placed tape over the kiosks’ camera lenses.

CityBridge — and Intersection, which own the Wi-Fi kiosks — can collect and use personal data to sell advertising, leading critics to object.

Hensley says that LinkNYC beacons do not track devices and denies that the Links will collect demographic data about users or target ads to individuals.

“As a one-to-many advertising platform, only anonymous and aggregated information is used, such as number of users connected to a specific Link at a specific time — but nothing identifiable about a person or their device,” Hensley said in an email.

“Together with the City of New York and with feedback from the New York Civil Liberties Union, LinkNYC has developed a user-first privacy policy well ahead of most Internet service providers,” said Hensley. LinkNYC usage statistics are available on the NYC Open Data portal and it plans to release a transparency report in early 2018.

But skeptics remain unconvinced.

“They’re saying, ‘Come on by, use this free Wi-Fi,’” says Cohen. “It comes off as a public service, but it’s using people’s personal data to make money. At a minimum, people should know that it’s something that’s going on.”

Privacy advocates have suggested that every community should decide whether it wants the new technology or not. Others have called for greater transparency: a visible privacy policy on each kiosk, plus public information on how data will be used and whether Intersection plans to cooperate with law enforcement agencies.

“The community has to learn how to use the Links,” Banks said, “and Intersection needs to learn how to make them marketable to residents.”

(Photo by Deanna Paul; Wibbitz video by Deanna Paul and Taryana Odayar)