Link NYC is transforming outdated public pay phones into wifi-hubs to generate a citywide “Link” of free wireless internet. The idea is that one link will hand your phone off to the next link on the block. Only one sign-in is required.
The sleek, slim towers will feature free national VOIP calling, USB charging stations, free gigabit internet accessible either through the Chrome-powered tablet embedded in the kiosk or via Wi-Fi on the user’s mobile device.
“It will be the biggest and fastest network in the world—and completely free of charge,” Mayor de Blasio said. “One thing I know about my fellow New Yorkers is that they like things to be completely free of charge.”
However, many New Yorkers also know that nothing is actually free. And the fact that Link NYC, a private contractor, is laying down such a vast and costly network entirely free of charge definitely raises suspicions.
Link NYC claims that they plan to generate revenues through advertisements on the sides of the kiosks. The ads can be changed remotely or sold programmatically, which is a big improvement from the static pay phone ad units that the Links are replacing .
LinkNYC is actually a consortium of businesses and vied against other companies for the wifi bid. LINK NYC is owned by Sidewalk Labs which is owned by Alphabet, the parent company of Google. Initially, Sidewalk Labs was partly owned by Google but given recent events, the company has acquired all stakes in the project.
This might make some New Yorkers hesitate. Google is rather infamous for its gigantic outreach and watched with a wary eye. While many people have no issue utilizing Google’s extensive search engine and other services, the fact that such a large company is behind the city’s “free” wi-fi plan is a little more than unsettling.
Titan, a company that invested in Link NYC, was found out a few months ago by Buzzfeed news for placing gimbal bluetooth beacons in old phone booths across Manhattan. Bluetooth beacons are a simple device that are known for their commercial availability, I.e. Notifying customers of sales on certain items via Bluetooth in a store. But they also have other possible uses, notably as a surveillance tool or data collection tool.
Bluetooth beacons all around the city could turn New York into a hot bed of hidden commercialization.
Using an Android app that identifies nearby beacons, Buzzfeed was able to discover over 13 Titan-Gimbal beacons in Lower Manhattan or approximately more than one every two blocks between Madison Square Garden and Bryant Park.
The lack of transparency and disinterest by the city’s officials is disturbing. Link NYC is a city-approved project, though privately owned. Considering City Hall’s love of policing everything from restaurants being permitted to put tables outside to street food being licensed, the fact that a beacon could so easily collect and sell data on users with the city’s permission seems skeptical.
Though the project comes at no cost to the city, the city still retains the right to police the project and should be fully aware of any data the device might pick up on.
When the project is completed over 7500 LinkNYC booths will be scattered throughout the city, providing continuous WiFi access to the city’s inhabitants. If the project stays true to its word—that it will provide uninterrupted access, then LinkNYC will have access to every New Yorker’s search history during their commute. The city should regulate which information LinkNYC is allowed to have and to utilize.