LinkNYC Sees You (Even When You Don’t Know It)

If you passed by any of the LinkNYC machines along Vernon Boulevard between 47th and 50th avenues on July 1st, 2018, you would have heard a slowed down version of the Mr. Softie jingle projecting from every speaker. When questioned about the ongoing incidents, representatives from LinkNYC reported that the system was not hacked from the inside, rather, a group of pranksters were approaching hundreds of units, in every borough, using the free telephones to call a number that had the pre-recorded song as an outgoing message, and put the calls on speaker phone. News outlets jumped at the story, declaring it the creepiest use of the machines since their introduction in 2016. Many argue, however, that what are considered “normal” functions of LinkNYC are far more unsettling.

Credit: Epicgenius via Wikimedia Commons

LinkNYC is described as a “communications network” represented by kiosks installed on New York City streets. The kiosks (approximately 1,750 in current operation) are nine-feet tall, equipped with two fifty-five-inch high-definition screens on either side and tablets that allow access to city maps, directions, services, a USB charging station, and the ability to make phone calls and connect to wi-fi. The digital screens draw you towards them with nostalgic neighborhood photos, artwork, weather updates, and current events including voter countdowns. CitiBridge, the company responsible for providing LinkNYC, states that the machines are free to users and come at no cost to taxpayers. On any given day you can see people taking selfies in front of kiosk screens or posts showing gratitude from businesses being included on its series of “official facts of NYC”.

Funding for this project comes from advertising revenue. LinkNYC boasts the benefits of its services for individuals and local economy on the FAQ section of its website, but let’s take a look at the user experience to break down some of the potential risks involved when interacting with this interface.

“Free” digital services usually come with a price, most often at the expense of user privacy. The Cambridge Analytica scandal revealed to the world the vulnerabilities Facebook users are subjected to on its site when the personal information of approximately 87 million people was improperly shared with the data mining research firm. If growing companies do not take on the responsibility of their users privacy and safety, mistakes can lead to these kinds of devastating consequences.

Intersection, the advertising/tech consulting firm behind LinkNYC, claims that the user experience is their number one priority. “We believe that by joining the digital and physical worlds we can help people get the most out of the cities around them.” But do they also believe they can help cities and advertisers get the most out of the people around them? Organizations, groups, and coalitions like Rethink LinkNYC believe so.

Every LinkNYC kiosk is equipped with microphones, Bluetooth, and two outward-facing security cameras. Not only does this mean that every person within the surrounding view of the device is subject to being recorded, it also perpetuates a culture of surveillance, further shaping a city wherein citizens are told to assume we are being monitored by the state and ultimately, subject to policing, at all times. Video camera footage is stored for “no more than seven days, unless the footage is necessary to investigate an incident.” It is unclear exactly what circumstances are deemed necessary and if steps are being taken by the company to prevent unwarranted police surveillance.

What happens to the personal information about you or your actions when choosing to interact with LinkNYC? The kiosks’ digital screens will eventually carry targeted ads that are based on information collected, anonymized and analyzed about users in every neighborhood. It is even possible that ads could be individualized, updated in real time, based on the particular person walking by a kiosk (which, as of now, would violate their current privacy policy). LinkNYC’s FAQ page claims that personal information is not sold or shared to third parties for their own use (including NYC), without explicit consent, or when required by law. The page also acknowledges that anonymized technical information may be shared to improve LinkNYC’s services, which includes targeted advertising. What is the difference between “technical information” and “personal information,” if any? Currently, there are no advertisements on any of the LinkNYC kiosks on Staten Island, a fact that leaves many questioning why only there and, furthermore, why there is no involvement of public opinion when decisions like these are made.

If you are interested in reducing the likelihood of LinkNYC obtaining information about you, there are several tools and resources available:

Avoid connecting to the “LinkNYC Free Wi-Fi” network. If you must use it and have a device that is compatible with their free “LinkNYC Private” network, opt to use that one, which requires you register and download a key that will give you a personal pin code and password for your device.

CV DAZZLE. Credit: cea +

Practice facial recognition obfuscation. As of now, none of LinkNYC’s cameras have facial recognition software, but, you never know. CV DAZZLE is an open source website that offers “Style Tips for Reclaiming Privacy.” Since there are thousands of surveillance cameras of all kinds all over the city, these are fun and informative tips for protection in dystopian times.

Join those who are organizing against LinkNYC. As more and more kiosks are activated in our boroughs and other major cities every week, the technology will continue to evolve quickly. It is important to demand transparency from the private companies in power and to remain informed about how these devices intersect with our privacy. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, Rethink Link, and NYCLU are three great places to start.

Lastly, if you’d rather be an ice cream prankster and want to have a laugh while critically thinking about these ideas, check out this video, created by Rethink LinkNYC.