Despite routinely heralding itself as an innovative technology hub, New York City’s broadband internet is often slow, expensive, unreliable, or unavailable. Critics say the city’s efforts to address this digital divide—most acutely felt by marginalized communities—have not only stumbled, they’ve created new problems ranging from public masturbation to privacy concerns.
LinkNYC, unveiled in 2014, was an ambitious plan to replace the city’s dated pay phones with “information kiosks” providing free public Wi-Fi, phone calls, device charging, and a tablet for access to city services, maps and directions. The kiosks are funded by “context-aware” ads based on a variety of data collected from New Yorkers.
Despite widespread criticism that the program failed to deliver on many of its original goals, the city is now expanding the project with new 5G kiosks, once again claiming the effort will deliver widespread, affordable broadband access to disadvantaged New Yorkers.
Program critics aren’t so sure. The corporate consortium tasked with overseeing the project, CityBridge, originally promised to deploy more than 7,000 kiosks uniformly across all five boroughs. Instead, it sluggishly deployed roughly 1,900 kiosks, predominately in Manhattan, doubling down on the digital divide the program was intended to address.
As early as 2016, complaints emerged about kiosk users camping out, viewing pornography (including animal porn) and masturbating in public. The problems forced the company to briefly disable web browsing before later implementing web filters. Complaints about the kiosks being “hubs of perversion” have persisted in the six years since, with annoyed local business owners often advocating for the kiosks’ removal.
By 2017, organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the ACLU had begun raising concerns that the kiosks were little more than glorified data-harvesting surveillance and advertising machines, and that the service’s vague privacy policies opened the door to greater urban surveillance—with very little transparency to the general public.
“The city is getting paid because third parties are getting unprecedented information from passers-by,” activist collective Rethink Link wrote at the time. “Bridging the digital divide doesn't require turning the whole city into one massive corporate surveillance network.”
“There’s lots of academic research that already shows, especially with regards to location data, that you can re-identify most anonymized data with just three location points,” he said. “Movement patterns are also easily re-identifiable, especially when spread out on a citywide level.”
In 2018, Charles Meyers, then an undergraduate at NYC College of Technology, came across folders in LinkNYC’s public library on GitHub suggesting the kiosks could collect users’ longitude and latitude, browser type, operating system, hardware specifics, and browsing history. LinkNYC reps denied that the code was in use in public kiosks, then filed a copyright complaint to force Github to take the files offline.
“LinkNYC's privacy protections far exceed other public Wi-Fi networks,” a LinkNYC spokesperson told Motherboard. “LinkNYC never tracks your online activity when you use the Wi-Fi and we don't sell or share personal or technical information with third parties for their own use."
The ACLU and EFF have consistently argued that a lack of transparency makes such promises impossible to independently verify. The broader telecom industry routinely makes carefully-worded assurances to customers on privacy and consumer data sales that have been later disproven by independent researchers, journalists, and regulators.
“We know from materials from the companies that they're definitely exploiting it for what they call hyper audience segmentation,” Schwarz said. “Geotargeting the physical world and offering their clients the same hyper targeting that they’re doing online, so that they can show pedestrians walking near the kiosks the same advertisements they would see on a website, explicitly know which website someone has visited before, what their interests are, consumer buying patterns, et cetera.”
At a city council meeting last May, it was revealed that each kiosk has upwards of thirty different sensors embedded within, many collecting an undetermined amount of consumer data. Schwarz argued that LinkNYC doesn’t need to technically “sell” this data, because it’s using and analyzing the data on their end to sell advertisements to third parties.
“This is fundamentally different from other public Wi-Fi networks and traditional ad billboards. Each kiosk can collect myriads of data 24/7,” he said. “Claims of anonymization are worth little without disclosing the implementation. And the density of LinkNYC kiosks can result in detailed location information about people’s commutes, habits, and associations.”
“We're in 2022 and we still don't exactly know what the software does on LinkNYC kiosks,” Schwarz added.
In 2020 the city considered scuttling the agreement entirely after reports indicated CityBridge still owed the city $75 million. A 2021 audit by New York State’s Comptroller found LinkNYC had failed to achieve its deployment objectives, failed to properly maintain existing kiosks, failed to turn on many already deployed kiosks, and had fallen well short of projected ad revenues.
“New York City’s underserved neighborhoods need broadband connection, but the LinkNYC program has not succeeded largely because the city has not held its developers accountable,” New York Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli said.
Schwarz said NYC’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications’ (DoITT), tasked with providing oversight of LinkNYC, has repeatedly failed to publicly release audits the organization claims to have conducted. He also said there’s been little to no meaningful process for community input and engagement.
“Without meaningful oversight, transparency about LinkNYC’s business model and software, and publicly available, independent audits, it is impossible to understand the full scope and impact of this technology,” he said.
LinkNYC officials state that the program has proven to be hugely beneficial to the city, providing Wi-Fi access to more than 11 million users and connecting more than 25+ million free phone calls. Representatives told Motherboard they’ve also struck an arrangement to pay the city everything it’s owed.
“When LinkNYC's franchise amendment was approved in 2021, CityBridge paid the city $25 million upfront and has a guaranteed payment schedule that includes all money owed as well as future revenue, totaling nearly $90 million in payments,” a spokesperson said.
“CityBridge also injected an additional $200 million of private investment into the program, in addition to the $250 million already spent, which will accelerate the equitable deployment of thousands of new kiosks across The Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and upper Manhattan, while significantly advancing the City’s capacity for rolling out 5G — all at no cost to taxpayers,” the spokesperson said.
Despite widespread complaints that the project failed to complete its original mission, the effort has seen renewed life under New New York City Mayor Eric Adams. The city is now hyping the deployment of entirely new fifth-generation wireless (5G) enabled Link5G kiosks, which are even larger (32 feet tall versus 9.5 feet) than the original units.
“I think it's going to be about the ugliest thing in our streetscape that you can possibly imagine,” New York City Public Design Commission member Signe Nielsen said last May.
While the original LinkNYC project was funded exclusively by advertising, a project proposal for the Link5G kiosks indicates the new effort will rely on advertising and money gleaned from cellular providers, who’ll pay to embed 5G small cells within the kiosks. Wireless carriers were already planning small cell deployments in most cities nationwide to boost 5G coverage, in most instances affixing them to existing city light fixtures.
While Wi-Fi will remain free, accessing the 5G network will require a subscription with one of the country’s wireless carriers. City officials spent the summer again promising that the updated Link5G service will be distributed equally to marginalized NYC neighborhoods.
“Ninety percent of future Link5Gs will be located in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and above 96th St. in Manhattan,” promised NYC CTO Matthew Fraser in a recent editorial. “Eventually there will be 2,000 Link5Gs across the city, particularly in areas where broadband options are limited and foot traffic is heavy.”
But consumer groups say even if the project lives up to its promises this time, LinkNYC is a bandaid for a deeper problem. While the service does provide free Wi-Fi to passers by, it doesn’t really address the real reason New Yorkers have to rely on street corner Wi-Fi in the first place: a lack of affordable, widely available broadband access at home.
Like most of the U.S., a lack of broadband competition in NYC results in high prices, poor customer service, slow speeds, and spotty availability. City data suggests two-in-five New York City households lack either a home broadband connection or cell service. More than 1.5 million New Yorkers lack both. Usually, the high cost of service is the biggest obstacle.
At the core of this digital divide sit telecom giants that enjoy a monopoly or duopoly across much of the city. The city’s dominant provider, Verizon FiOS, was sued in 2017 for failing to live up to a 2014 agreement with the city to deploy fiber evenly to all five boroughs. Activist projects like NYCMesh have been forced to cobble together alternative, affordable access solutions.
A 2020 plan unveiled by the de Blasio administration promised to build a massive new citywide open access fiber network, bringing faster, cheaper service to all New Yorkers. The project pledged to spend $2.1 billion to ensure broad, competitive access to fiber and wireless networks, boosting competition, expanding access, and lowering consumer costs.
But the effort was “paused” earlier this year by the Adams administration for “re-evaluation.” Sources familiar with the original project tell Motherboard the pause was more of a cancellation, and caught many partner organizations and companies completely off guard as they prepared to implement a project that had spent years in development.
LinkNYC officials insist that their kiosk program remains a popular and vital way to shore up access to disadvantaged New Yorkers, and the fiber deployments needed to feed the new 5G-enabled kiosks in underserved boroughs should help expand NYC fiber access overall, making it cheaper for other ISPs to deploy fiber — all at no additional cost to taxpayers.
“I think this is a piece of a larger array of steps the city would have to take to truly make broadband access akin to water and electricity,” EFF Senior Legislative Counsel Ernesto Falcon told Motherboard. Delivery of free access in public settings is an essential step towards that goal. However, if we do not figure out how to ensure people have high quality, low cost 21st century ready connectivity at home, the digital divide will forever persist.”
The problem remains that many U.S. politicians and policymakers have an aversion to directly confronting monopoly power, instead embracing a variety of theatrical industry alliances that don’t genuinely address the real cause of the nation’s persistent digital divide. It remains to be seen if LinkNYC 2.0—privacy warts, pornography, and all—will prove to be an exception.
This article is part of State of Surveillance, made possible with the support of a grant from Columbia University’s Ira A. Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights in conjunction with Arnold Ventures. The series will explore the development, deployment, and effects of surveillance and its intersection with race and civil rights.