Earlier this year, The Village Voice's business department got a bright idea: why not put Bluetooth beacons on their red distribution boxes to keep tabs on how they're doing? So they called up Gimbal, a company that specialized in such beacons, to make a deal, only to have Gimbal quickly suggest that it could offer the Voice a better deal on the technology if it sold data collected by the beacons to third-party advertisers—violating NYC ordinances that forbid selling ads on the boxes.
"This deal was starting to smell wrong," Nick Pinto at The Village Voice writes. "A huge discount to surreptitiously use Voice property to push location-specific ads to passing New Yorkers? Maybe there was a story here. The business team walked it down the hall to the editorial staff."
He was right. Gimbal, it turns out, also provides Bluetooth beacons to CityBridge, the consortium —backed by Qualcomm and Intersection, which the Alphabet/Google-owned Sidewalk Labs invests in—behind New York's new "free" public access kiosk network, LinkNYC, which went live earlier this year with the conversion of 500 disused public pay phones. CityBridge's ambition is to blanket the city with over 7,500 of these free Wi-Fi access points, as well as terminals that serve up free national VoIP calls, free USB charging—and, of course, the ads which will pay for it all. Mayor Bill de Blasio has called the project a "historic" undertaking that will finally make the Internet freely accessible to everyone in the City, including underprivileged groups which traditionally have a harder time getting online.
But as the Voice explains in its in-depth exposé of LinkNYC today, the effort seem like a privacy nightmare in the making—and not just because of Gimbal's participation.
The fact that CityBridge is willing to pay $300 million to install the kiosks across NYC should be enough to raise eyebrows, Pinto points out: there's big money to be made here. Even supposedly anonymous data collected from LinkNYC's network can be crunched into surprisingly specific data profiles of individuals. CityBridge and its partners might not be able to collect your name from a kiosk, but they theoretically have everything else: what device you use, how old you are, what you search for, what you buy, and even where you live. "Companies are using our information to know us better than we know ourselves," Linda Holliday, an expert on digital marketing, told The Voice. "They can predict that you're going to get divorced even before you know it. They know that you'll pay for business class even if you're asking for coach. And they're using that knowledge to make decisions about us without our even being aware of it.""
What's truly alarming about LinkNYC, though, is how clearly the initiative intersects with Google's own stated goal of breaking free of the Internet to become, in the words of CEO Sundar Pinchai, ambient. As the Voice explains:
It is an effort to establish a permanent presence across our city, block by block, and to extend its online model to the physical landscape we humans occupy on a daily basis. The company then intends to clone that system and start selling it around the world, government by government, to as many as will buy. And every place that signs on will become another profit center in Google's advertising business, even as it extends its near-monopoly on information about our online behavior to include our behavior in physical space as well.
Supporters of LinkNYC say that critics can ultimately choose not to use the kiosks, but this isn't actually true. Google can easily snoop on people passing by LinkNYC kiosks, just by sniffing for their smartphone or tablet's IP or MAC address through their Wi-Fi signal. (Update: A representative from CityBridge says that the kiosks will not Wi-Fi sniff, and third-parties will never be given access to user data.) Citywide, that's enough to tell advertisers where individuals live, where they work, how they commute, and what shops and restaurants they pass every day. Gimbal's Bluetooth beacons can theoretically do the same thing. (Sidewalk Labs declined to comment in the Voice story, and did not immediately return a request for comment from Co.Design.)
But even if it was possible to opt out, that's a straw man argument for justifying this kind of city-sponsored surveillance of its citizens. "Those are not adequate choices in a 21st-century world: We are designing the net to track you—if you don't like it, don't use it," says Eben Moglen, a Columbia Law professor interviewed in the article. "The human race is shifting to a fully surveilled and monitored superorganism—if you don't like that, stop being human."
The real choice, which should have been made by NYC's elected officials, is not to let privately held companies like Google and Qualcomm bankroll these sort of infrastructure "upgrades" in the first place. "There is a different issue in play here," writes Pinto in the Voice. "The right of the City of New York to surrender that data for us; the right of our elected officials—over the objections of some of the city's own watchdogs and in exchange for what is, viewed in the light of the city's $78 billion annual budget, chump change—to sell citizens' privacy off the back of a truck to a for-profit company."
Update: A spokesman from LinkNYC commented: "LinkNYC does not collect or store any data on users' personal web browsing on their own devices. CityBridge will never sell any user’s personal information or share with third parties for their own use. This includes the City, law enforcement, investors, vendors, partners, and advertisers. Alphabet, Sidewalk Labs, and Google are all third parties to CityBridge."
Correction: The LinkNYC kiosks began rolling out in January, not this month, as we previously reported. Also, CityBridge says that their kiosks will not sniff Wi-Fi, and that no third-parties will be given access to user data.