Articles

LinkNYC Kiosks Provide Free Internet, But for a Price

As New York City replaces payphones with high-tech hotspots that deliver targeted ads, some concerns are being raised.

by Craig Campbell / February 9, 2016

The streets of New York City are one step closer to super-fast public Wi-Fi. LinkNYC, a public-private partnership between the city and a consortium of technology companies, has debuted its first two payphone-turned-tech kiosks in Manhattan. These gleaming aluminum "Links," as they are called, contain Wi-Fi beacons, mobile device chargers and informational tablets that include an app allowing free phone calls to anywhere in the country. The city plans to roll out 500 more of them by July and to have at least 4,550 spread across the five boroughs by 2020.

The Links are an early example of efforts by cities across the country to retool their public rights of way to provide better services and even generate revenue. In the case of LinkNYC, that revenue comes from advertisements that light up 55-inch HD screens on each side of the kiosks, changing every 15 seconds. The ad revenue will be split between the city and CityBridge, the designer and operator of the Links. The city is guaranteed at least $500 million over the next 12 years.

That arrangement is leading some to raise questions about privacy. Ad space on the Links is so valuable because of the user information (including IP addresses, GPS location and browsing data) that allows advertisers to deliver highly targeted content to passersby. The back end works similarly to ad-targeting algorithms users encounter while surfing the Web.

In a recent article in The Conversation, Benjamin Dean, who researches Internet governance and cybersecurity at Columbia University, wrote that "far from being free, use of LinkNYC comes with the price of mandatory collection of potentially sensitive personal, locational and behavioral data." To underscore this point, he cited a Pew Research Center survey in which nine in 10 adults said that "being in control of what information is collected about them is important."

A more recent Pew report, however, found that "there are a variety of circumstances under which many Americans would share personal information or permit surveillance in return for getting something of perceived value." That "something" might be a social media platform, a search engine -- or ubiquitous wireless Internet where payphones used to be. To echo the Pew report, "Free is a good price."

LinkNYC has a transparent privacy policy promising that no personally identifiable information will be shared outside of CityBridge. But as with all public services, users must assume some risk. Even with the cybersecurity protections CityBridge has built into the Links, it still falls on users to make informed choices when connecting their devices to new sources of Internet service. As the Wall Street Journal's Joanna Stern put it in a recent video feature on LinkNYC, "You wouldn't use a public toilet without the proper precautions. Don't use a public hotspot without them either."

Certainly privacy is a real concern in any public-private partnership involving citizens' data. High-profile data breaches at the federal-government level and concerns over exploitive corporate data-mining practices have rightly elicited unease. But municipal governments have sustained a good track record so far. As partnerships of this sort become commonplace, cities have an opportunity to raise the bar and chart a path as public stewards of citizens' information.

It remains to be seen whether LinkNYC's privacy protections will be as customer-focused as promised. But if it holds up, it will be a big step in advancing the city's tech ecosystem in a common direction, whether in city agencies, emerging start-ups in "Silicon Alley," schools in underserved communities or -- yes, the curbs of city sidewalks.

This column is part of a Better, Faster, Cheaper series featured on Governing, following the ways in which states and municipalities are reimagining public infrastructure as an underdeveloped resource. If you have tips on examples, please email them to bfc@hks.harvard.edu or tweet them to @GoldsmithOnGov.