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Contributed by Jeffrey Sebranek

So, what is the purpose of LinkNYC?

The city of New York is among the premier cities in the world, yet there are still millions of New York City residents who do not enjoy anytime-access to high-speed internet. LinkNYC1, plans to change that by establishing a new communications network that will eventually replace all of the city’s iconic, and increasingly anachronistic, payphones with new technology called Link. To provide a foundation for these new Links stations CityBridge is also doling out cash upfront to pay for a brand new system of high-speed fiber cable currently being laid under the city streets. Standing at around 9 ½ feet tall Links booths are meant to help fill this gap in internet access for visitors and city residents by providing gigabyte-speed internet all around the city within range of any Links. In addition to free high-speed Wi-Fi, LinkNYC offers a variety of other features including: city services, free VOIP phone calls, 911 emergency feature, USB charging ports, and two 55-inch HD displays.

LinkNYC will be provided to city residents by the city of NYC and CityBridge, a group of companies hailing from the fields of technology, connectivity and advertising. The CityBridge conglomerate is composed of companies including tech giant Qualcomm, urban infrastructure design company Civiq Smartscapes (formerly known as Vertigo Digital Displays), and the largest municipal media company in the country Intersection, owned by tech overlords Alphabet Inc., still known to most as Google.

With the nation as a whole and countless municipalities deep in public debt, citizens of all political leanings have become concerned about the rapidly mounting costs of any new government created boondoggle. CityBridge seeks to mitigate this concern by taking up for themselves, the cost of installation and ongoing service. Funding for LinkNYC is slated to be derived wholly from advertising, sponsorships and partnerships that will come at no cost to either users or New York taxpayers. In fact the project is projected to raise at least half a billion dollars over the next 12 years. With 500 Links anticipated to be up and running by end of July 2016, CityBridge plans to construct over 7500 of the new units over the next few years as they continue their plan to replace old existing payphones with this new modern system.

The Good with the Bad

Nick Pinto, a journalist with the left-leaning and longstanding expression of New York life, The Village Voice, takes a more sinister view of LinkNYC2 questioning whether the city is creating an invasive monopoly without adequately protecting the civil liberties of its users. Of particular concern for Pinto revolves around LinkNYC’s privacy policy, which on its face appears to promise protection through anonymity. In reality the privacy policy authorizes CityBridge to collect an enormous range of information about users, including unique identifiers like MAC and IP addresses, information about which websites users visit, where they scroll and click on those websites, how long they stay on them, and what they search for.

All this info is classified as salable “Technical information” which CityBridge lists separately from “Personal Information” such as your name and email address, which their privacy policy forbids them to sell. This seems insincere as the privacy policy does not qualify MAC and IP address as personal information because they technically identify devices and not people. Of course since the majority of CityBridge traffic involves mobile devices and few people consistently share their mobile device with others, a MAC and/or IP address is really a direct relationship to its owner. Disconcerting for some is that according to CityBridge they can use your personally identifying IP address and share with advertisers your search terms, all of the web pages you’ve visited and for how long, all for the purpose of selling more valuable targeted advertising.

Lee Tien, a lawyer for digital privacy advocacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation sums up his concern: “If CityBridge is using a business model that is not charging, and they are spending a bunch of money putting these things in, they are going to be monetizing the data hard,2.

1https://www.link.nyc/

2https://www.villagevoice.com/news/google-is-transforming-nycs-payphones-into-a-personalized-propaganda-engine-8822938