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    LinkNYC's New Free Network Is Blazing Fast. But At What Cost to Privacy?

    Written by

    Sam Gustin

    Correspondent

    New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio uses a Link to listen to a 311 operator for the first time. Photo: Sam Gustin/Motherboard

    New York City launched a massive new public communications network on Thursday that backers say will serve as a model for next-generation urban tech infrastructure. But some consumer advocates warn the project could pose a threat to privacy, so users should remain vigilant about safeguarding their personal data.

    The LinkNYC initiative aims to transform at least 7,500 Big Apple payphones into free ad-supported internet hubs, called Links, that are equipped with an array of services for citizens, including free domestic calls, free USB charging ports, and access to maps, directions, and other city services.

    At a press conference in Manhattan on Thursday, officials beamed as they stood next to one of the newly operational Links and hailed the program as an important step toward closing the city’s persistent digital divide, which separates those who can afford internet access from those who cannot.

    “LinkNYC is the Wi-Fi network New Yorkers deserve: the largest, fastest municipal Wi-Fi network in the world—and you won’t need to insert a quarter in the slot, because it’s completely free,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement. “LinkNYC brings us a couple steps closer to our goal of leveling the playing field and providing every New Yorker with access to the most important tool of the 21st century.”

    Officials call LinkNYC the latest example of New York City’s determination to lead the United States in urban innovation, technology incubation, and civic engagement. Yet some privacy advocates have warned that the new system has the potential to be misused for commercial or surveillance purposes—or even hacked by malevolent actors—concerns that LinkNYC backers strongly dispute.

    The new project, which is the result of a unique public-private partnership that’s been under development for years, comes as cities around the country are racing to increase both the ubiquity and speed of internet access for citizens in order to boost economic development and improve the delivery of government services.

    Public payphones have been iconic, ubiquitous features of the Big Apple’s cityscape for generations, but the rapid proliferation of mobile phones has made many of these throwback installations obsolete. Several years ago, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg launched an ambitious project to transform the city’s payphones into next-generation communications hubs—an effort that is finally coming to fruition.

    LinkNYC is being built out under a city franchise agreement by a group called CityBridge, which includes Intersection, a newly-formed media company that is partly owned by Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Alphabet, Google’s parent company. CityBridge says it will invest more than $200 million to build hundreds of miles of new fiber-optic cable throughout the city. Tech titan Qualcomm is providing much of the project’s computing power, using the company’s latest microchips and modem technology.

    CityBridge says that 95 percent of the city’s Links will eventually deliver wireless speeds of as much as one gigabit per second, a dramatic increase over most currently available wired and wireless speeds. But there’s a caveat. According to the franchise agreement, each Link “must be capable of supporting up to 256 devices with a total aggregate throughput of 1Gbps.” As a result, if many users are connecting to one Link simultaneously, wireless speeds will likely be substantially less than one gigabit per second.

    Speedy internet hubs are replacing payphones throughout the city. Photo: Sam Gustin/Motherboard

    Motherboard tested a Link at the official launch on Thursday—when the network was facing heavy congestion from the assembled press corps—and found speeds of 70Mbps downstream and 47Mbps upstream. One block north, at a different Link, we found speeds of 230Mbps downstream and 240Mbps upstream—a dramatic improvement over most existing wireless networks.

    LinkNYC officials say that the new wifi hubs, which will generate revenue through 55-inch digital billboards on the sides of the kiosks, will not cost Big Apple taxpayers a dime. (Officials say there will be no traditional online advertising, like the kind users often find using airport wifi.) On the contrary, the project’s backers say that LinkNYC will deliver more than $500 million into city coffers over the first dozen years.

    Given the project’s outsized ambitions—and the simple fact that the city will be working with private companies to deliver wireless access on a massive scale—it’s understandable that some privacy advocates have raised concerns about the network being used to monitor citizens or deliver highly-targeted, location-based advertising on an unprecedented scale. Google-parent Alphabet, which incubated Sidewalk Labs, has been at the forefront of the so-called “hyper-local” marketing revolution.

    “They’re turning the city of New York into one giant digital shopping mall that erases the difference between online and offline marketing”

    This concern is especially acute because Links will include location-based services using so-called “beacon” technology, which sends out geo-targeted Bluetooth-based signals to users who choose to receive them, according to the project’s website. What’s more, Links “will collect anonymized and aggregate data to develop insights on usage and system diagnostics to improve your Link experience and to deliver more relevant advertising,” according to CityBridge.

    “They’re turning the city of New York into one giant digital shopping mall that erases the difference between online and offline marketing,” said Jeffrey Chester, Executive Director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a leading consumer advocacy group focused on privacy. “It’s an ethical dilemma for the city because the ad-tech industry is an important part of the economy. But these companies are at the forefront of collecting data for commercial uses. That’s what they do.”

    CityBridge says that beacons “could allow for a new array of opt-in, useful applications for users, like improved navigation services for people with disabilities or location specific content,” but it’s worth noting that in 2014, Titan, the large outdoor advertising firm that is part of the LinkNYC consortium, caused a furor after it was revealed to have placed beacons in 500 payphone kiosks without public notice.

    In the wake of that controversy, CityBridge has repeatedly emphasized that robust privacy and security protections have been built into the project.

    “Privacy is very important to us, and we worked with the Mayor’s office to create what we think is the most user-centric privacy policy of any public wifi network,” Colin O’Donnell, Chief Innovation Officer at Intersection, told reporters. “And we’ll never share your email address or share any personally identifiable information with any third party, period.”

    CityBridge says that all network connections between Links and mobile devices will be encrypted. (For greater security, officials actively encourage the use of web-server SSL encryption—signified by URLs that begin with “https”—for any “sensitive matters.”) A security-enhanced “LinkNYC Private” network is also available, but as of now the enhanced service only works on newer Apple devices enabled with Hotspot 2.0 technology.

    Claire Gartland, Consumer Protection Counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a leading consumer advocacy group, echoed the concerns about hyper-local, location-based marketing. But she also criticized the two-tier nature of the service, which she says could disadvantage lower-income people who are the least likely to own the latest mobile devices that are compatible with LinkNYC Private, but the most likely to rely on free wireless services for sensitive tasks like banking and obtaining government services.

    “Privacy shouldn't be a luxury good,” said Gartland. “It should be a human right that applies to everyone regardless of their socioeconomic status. The people most in need of secure access are going to have the least-secure connections, and thus be the most-exposed to identity theft and fraud.”

    CityBridge insists that no personally-identifIable information will be sold to or shared with third parties, and says that all Bluetooth-based beacon applications will remain opt-in. But Chester says that consumers have a right to be skeptical and notes that any significant pattern of privacy breaches could seriously undermine LinkNYC if citizens lose trust in the project.

    CityBridge says that 510 Links will be installed across all five boroughs by July of this year. In order to fulfill its franchise agreement with the city, the group must build at least 7,500 Links over the next eight years. The NYC Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, the Big Apple’s lead technology agency, is charged with overseeing the project and ensuring that CityBridge abides by its consumer privacy promises.