Takeover of Free Public Wifi Kiosks All Over NYC Raises Privacy Concerns

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Takeover of Free Public Wifi Kiosks All Over NYC Raises Privacy Concerns

“Internet access is not a choice, it’s a modern-life necessity”.

Thirty-four million of Americans, nearly 10%, do not have basic broadband access to the Internet. This is something that the city of New York hopes to help change in the future through their LinkNYC project. LinkNYC is a citywide Wifi system with the plans for thousands of hospot kiosks to be placed throughout all 5 boroughs of the city. How many exactly? The goal is to have more than 7,500 Wifi hotspot hubs to replace old pay phones and will expect to have 500 LinkNYC stations set up across New York City by mid-July, with each hotspot hub giving off a Wifi radius of 400 feet.


Out with the old, in with the new

The LinkNYC program is offered through a partnership between the city with CityBridge, which is run by the large CityBridge group consisting of a consortium of companies taking care of the LinkNYC system. The free service would see the replacement of New York City’s old pay phone booths with the LinkNYC hubs that act as wireless routers providing fiber Internet.


Source: LinkNYC

While still only in beta mode, since its official launch last motnh, New York City municipal Wifi is already said to bring a blazing fast Wifi network through the nearly three dozen already up and working, Internet speeds are registered to be 10 times faster than the city’s current public Internet speeds which is all for free.

On top of that, at each station you can make free unlimited domestic phone calls, or charge your mobile with the USB charging ports for those running low on battery juice. Additional good news is that each station will also include built-in 911 emergency access, city maps and even Skype-calling capabilities.

The ability to provide these free services comes simply through advertising money by means of ads on the kiosks’ sides. Each hub doubles as large electronic advertising displays that could change multiple times throughout the day. The Verge estimates that the total ad revenue the city could potentially earn would be over $500 million by 2028.

linkNYC map

Locality plans for LinkNYC hubs. (Source: LinkNYC)


Three main privacy concerns


Source: NYU Local

Sounding too good to be true? Well, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) believes so too since they have expressed concerns about the privacy of people using these free Wifi hotspots to connect throughout the city. The privacy advocates had sent a letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office voicing their concerns about the vagueness of the privacy policy involved.

The letter, signed by NYCLU Staff Attorney Mariko Hirose and Advocacy Directory Johanna Miller, lists three main concerns at hand:

1) how long user data will be retained

2) unclear language about government requests for user data

3) whether the “environmental sensors and cameras” that sit on the new Wifi hubs will feed into the Domain Awareness System, a city-wide police surveillance network

 NYCLU had raised privacy concerns regarding the possibility of users’ email addresses when they signed in to use the free service being retained by CityBridge along with the users’ browsing history. A great concern for them was also that somehow the new project was open to unwarranted NYPD surveillance as it is potentially creating a massive database that is within the ready grasp of the NYPD.

They have written that they’re “concerned about the vast amount of private information retained” in the system, specifically worrying that the policy’s stipulation that personally identifiable information must be deleted “after 12 months of user inactivity” could be “effectively an indefinite retention period for people who use LinkNYC in their daily lives.”

Similarly, the NYCLU group feels CityBridge’s collection of user data such as “what websites they visit on their devices, where and how long they linger on certain information on a webpage, and what links they click” could prove just as invasive as gathering other personal information on a person. NYCLU emphasizes that CityBridge should rightly be notifying the users via email about any requests for data from the government, unless there’s a “lawful judicial order barring” them from doing so.


LinkNYC’s & the Mayor’s office say

The Mayor and Citybridge responded quickly to the civil rights group’s letter. After receiving much criticism on the privacy issues the city responded to the privacy backlash by reiterating that the law enforcement do not have direct access to information and environmental sensors, that getting LinkNYC data would still require a subpoena, and mentions that the system takes steps to protect data, including encryption services to protect against would-be hackers.

Jen Hensley, general manager of LinkNYC, told The Huffington Post that the company would never sell a user’s private information and that law enforcement does not have unfettered access to the data.

“CityBridge would require a subpoena or similar lawful request before sharing any data with the NYPD or law enforcement, and we will make every effort to communicate government requests to impacted users,” Hensley stated.

Hensley also went on to address NYCLU’s third concern regarding LinkNYC’s cameras, assuring that LinkNYC does not collect or store any data on users’ personal web browsing on their own devices. If a government request for a user’s information is received, a spokesperson for LinkNYC said that “reasonable attempts” would be made to contact user via the email they provided to use the service.

Correspondingly, Natalie Grybauskas the New York City mayoral spokesperson who spoke on behalf of Mayor Bill de Blasio, told Huffington Post there are privacy protections in place on the public Wifi system and said the “privacy policy is the best way to protect New Yorkers and LinkNYC users while they safely and securely enjoy free superfast Wi-Fi across the five boroughs.”

“New York City and CityBridge have created customer-first privacy protections to ensure our users’ personal information stays that way – personal. We believe our privacy policy is the best way to protect New Yorkers and LinkNYC users while they safely and securely enjoy free superfast Wi-Fi across the five boroughs. We will continue to work to ensure legitimate concerns are addressed.”

As to the NYCLU’s concerns regarding the Domain Awareness system, Grybauskas also confirmed that LinkNYC’s cameras and environmental sensors do not feed into the Domain Awareness System and that the NYPD would have to subpoena to obtain any information from the LinkNYC system as well as echoed the statement by Jen Hensley that no personal information will be shared or sold for third-party use unless a subpoena or court order requires it.


[1] Tech Times

[2] Fast Company

[3] Huffington Post

[4] Gizmodo

[5] State Scoop

[6] CBS News

[7] Fusion

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