New York’s “free” wifi kiosks come with a not-so-private catch

February 25th, 2017

By Eric Hornbeck

Through a program known as LinkNYC, slab-like kiosks are replacing the increasingly unused payphones on the sidewalks of New York City. The kiosks offer much more than the phone calls that can be made from payphones: the kiosks have tablets with internet access, charging stations and wifi service that expands as far as 150 feet. As more kiosks go up, it’s hard for New Yorkers not to notice them — or the ads targeted to the very pedestrians walking by.

At first blush, the kiosks are designed to be a cost-free boon to the city. On-the-go New Yorkers and tourists would get wifi access citywide and use kiosks to quickly check maps, make a call to 311 or even find their local polling place. New Yorkers in neighborhoods lacking access to high-speed internet would also get free wifi in their neighborhoods to bridge the digital divide.

The companies that run LinkNYC profit, too, from the lucrative sale of advertising space on the kiosks. The LinkNYC kiosks are run by CityBridge, a consortium that includes Sidewalk Labs, which is affiliated with Google parent company Alphabet. CityBridge has so far installed about 400 kiosks, and plans to install up to 10,000.  Because much of that advertising revenue is pumped back into the city budgetabout $30 million since the contract’s inception — New Yorkers are supposed to get the benefits of citywide high-speed wifi for free.

Photo Credit: Jim Henderson via Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Jim Henderson via Creative Commons

Well, not exactly “free.” With payphones, callers paid to make a call by dropping in a quarter or calling collect. The companies that owned the payphones also made money off the static, unchanging ads on the sides of the payphones. Now, kiosk users pay with their data. Alphabet’s business model is built on largely on targeted advertising: advertisers will pay more to ensure ads are reaching the exact consumers they want. The kiosks’ ads can change based on data it collects from passing smartphones and then be hyper-targeted to those pedestrians walking past.

Advocates warn that once the kiosks are installed throughout the city they could be used as a mass surveillance tool. The kiosks include cameras and microphones, ostensibly for security. But Gale Brewer, the Manhattan borough president, has pointed out that it’s unclear how and where the data collected by the kiosks is stored and who has access to it. The New York Civil Liberties Union has raised similar concerns. The group pointed out that CityBridge’s privacy policy, which users must agree to when signing up with their email address for access to the wifi, is vague about whether users’ browsing data or the data from the cameras and microphones can be turned over to the police.

At a city council oversight meeting in November, a community member also pointed out that while the wifi service on the subways — which are controlled not by the city but by a state agency — doesn’t require users to supply an email address, the kiosks’ wifi service does.

“This is tracking, so we’re asking that that requirement be dropped and the person be able to use all of the features of the Wi-Fi without having to give their email address,” said Jordon Wouk, who spoke on behalf of the Upper East Side’s community board at a November oversight hearing held by the city council’s technology committee.

CityBridge has said that the cameras aren’t turned on, that law enforcement will need a subpoena to access the data, and that email addresses are necessary to update users about service changes. The NYCLU said those assurances are too weak, pointing out that CityBridge’s privacy policy allows it to retain users’ data indefinitely and not tell users when law enforcement asks for their data.

In the short term, other problems with the kiosks have overshadowed the privacy concerns. Installations of new kiosks have been slower than expected because of infrastructure complications outside Manhattan and the Bronx, a Verizon strike, and lawsuits from an advocacy group for the visually impaired and another payphone operator. City council members have also raised concerns that one of the promises of the new kiosks — bringing wifi to underserved communities — has also gone unfulfilled, with deployments in Manhattan exceeding those in other boroughs. And on operating kiosks, the internet-enabled tablets were also perhaps too much of a good thing: neighbors complained about users loitering for hours, playing music loudly from the kiosk tablets and even watching pornography on the tablets. Those complaints led CityBridge to turn off internet access on the tablets.

The abuse of the kiosks by powerful companies and passers by alike, shows just how different the new kiosks are from the payphones they’re meant to replace. If the technology can be abused, it will be, no matter what policymakers’ intentions are. The privacy of users’ data on the kiosks — or even on their own phones as they walk by — faces the same danger.