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What the LinkNYC Project Means for the Average New Yorker

The future is about to get a bit more evenly distributed, thanks to ads.
June 29, 2015, 2:10pm
Image: CityBridge/NYC

LinkNYC is a massive communications project that promises to bring up to 10,000 public information terminals to NYC streets. If the program rolls out as planned, it will bring free wifi at up to gigabit speeds to the public, which would make it the among the fastest municipal internet connections in the world.

Sidewalk Labs, the urban innovation company birthed by Google last year, has been in the news lately for its investment in Intersection, the major player in the LinkNYC project. LinkNYC's network will be powered by 10,000 tablet-like terminals, or "Links", that will provide free wifi access within 150 feet, free charging for electronic devices, free domestic phone calls, and access to city services like 311. The most notable part of the program? It'll come at zero cost to taxpayers, being totally supported by ad revenue.

Before counting our digital chickens before they hatch, it's important to consider how LinkNYC will actually work, and just how it'll affect the day to day lives of most New York City residents. Taxpayers won't shell out a dime for the program, but they could end up paying in other ways.

First, lots of headlines have been very liberal with the use of Google's name in their reporting on the project. Even with the recent investment by Sidewalk Labs, Google's involvement in the project is not that cut and dry. As a Sidewalk Labs spokesperson explained to Motherboard, "Sidewalk [Labs] is an independent company that operates separately from Google, and Sidewalk is a minority investor in Intersection along with a consortium of others," including the marketing firm Titan and design firm Control Group. The Links will use Android as their OS, which will be the extent to which Google is directly involved in the project.

Protecting the public's interest in the project will be the NYC Department of Information and Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT). The project is a franchise agreement: the city, through DoITT, will allow Intersection and its partners the use of public space and infrastructure, and the city gets the services of the Links, as well as a share from the ad revenue they generate.

The program has obvious benefits for lower income residents, and provides them with a communication alternative the same way payphones once provided alternatives for anyone who didn't have access landline or mobile phone. For the homeless in particular, access to internet and phone networks can make all the difference in keeping in contact with loved ones, chasing leads on jobs, and getting emergency help.

There are obvious causes for concern as well. The privacy policy, while robust, still allows Intersection and its partners to sell your browsing information to other advertisers, and the Wifi networks "do not support Do Not Track requests at this time." Users who agree to the terms and use the Links will have to trust the enforcement policies DoITT to protect their information. That is a risk, and it's a risk that could easily fall more heavily on lower income New Yorkers. The massive advertising operation that will pay for all 10,000 Links—and the potential for abuse that comes along with it— has to be weighed against the huge distribution of access of an essential utility like the internet.

A privacy policy has been released by DoITT, available in full here, detailing the terms and conditions of accessing Wifi over a Link, and what kind of information they are allowed to store about users. It claims that all the informations users will provide to access the networks are a username, password, and email address.

A closer look also reveals that CityBridge may collect, "MAC address, IP address, browser type and version, time zone setting, browser plug-in types and versions, operating system and platform, device type, and device identifiers….Information about your visits to websites we provide, including the full URL clickstream to, through and from these websites (including date and time)," though only in an "an aggregate or anonymous manner." While the agreement stresses that metadata will be collected in aggregate, we've seen before that metadata can provide a surprising level of insight into a person's behavior.

"This is not 'Minority Report,' where we're looking at individual users," Colin O'Donnell, chief operating officer of Control Group, told Motherboard last November. "We've worked with the city to build the most robust privacy policy of any free wifi network in the world, and we'll never share personally identifying information with any third party"

Just like the pay phones they'll eventually replace were basically germ incubators, Links seem ripe for exploitation by viruses of another kind. Motherboard reached out to a spokesperson from DoITT for clarification on the security and privacy precautions the initiative would embrace. As part of the franchise agreement, certain requirements set by the city for the private parties have to be met. All the Links must offer an encrypted connection using HotSpot 2.0, a protocol that allows roaming just like a cellular network, allowing users to login just once and move between networks. DoITT says the links will not allow peer-to-peer communication in a bid to thwart mobile hacking attempts.

LinkNYC is only the beginning: Sidewalk Labs wants to expand the program to more cities across America. The tradeoff at the heart of this program is simple. City dwellers get access to Links that serve the multipurpose roles of pay phones, wifi hotspots, and information kiosks for free, and the companies that operate the Links get access to your browsing data—in an "anonymous manner"—for advertising purposes. It's a deal the city government of New York was happy to make. When the Links begin rolling out this fall, we'll see if it's a tradeoff the public will embrace as well.