Letter to the Editor: LinkNYC

Letter to the Editor of The Intercept from the Commissioner of the New York City Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications

The Intercept published a story that got the facts wrong about the LinkNYC Privacy Policy. They intend to correct the story and publish an excerpt from our Letter to the Editor, but here it is in its entirety.

More than 4 million New Yorkers and visitors have used LinkNYC’s superfast free wi-fi; the City of New York has protected the privacy of each one. The City will never create or support any initiative that threatens the privacy of users.

To the Editor:

Re: “ARE NEW YORK’S FREE LINKNYC INTERNET KIOSKS TRACKING YOUR MOVEMENTS?” (September 8, 2018)

As the City’s administrators of LinkNYC, we are pleased to succinctly answer the question posed in the headline: No.

The City of New York conceptualized and developed the effort to provide free, superfast wi-fi to residents and visitors, fundamentally driven by a mission and responsibility to serve the public — which means unequivocally protecting the privacy of its users. Said another way: as a public project, LinkNYC can only exist if it conforms to the City’s unambiguous commitment to user privacy. That means the City does not, and will never, allow the network operator — CityBridge — to exploit the individual identifiers or precise location of users.

The story wrongly reports that “When kiosk users register for LinkNYC and submit their email addresses, CityBridge retains the right to collect information about what websites they visit, how long they linger on a webpage, and what they click on.” This is not true now, nor has it ever been true. In fact, this activity is explicitly prohibited in the LinkNYC Privacy Policy, which states “We will not store your browsing history or track the websites you visit when you use your personal device to access the Services.” Any collection, storage and use of user data is governed by this Privacy Policy, which — after working with the New York Civil Liberties Union in 2017 — has been strengthened to achieve a level of user protection that is unmatched by any comparable policy of its kind. As a result, LinkNYC provides the most private internet experience available anywhere: one far more protective of privacy than internet service providers to home and office.

If, during our careful oversight of CityBridge, we discover practices that violate the Privacy Policy, we will direct CityBridge to immediately cease and desist from that practice. If they do not, we would swiftly terminate their franchise and replace them. It’s that simple: if you work with the City of New York, you keep New Yorkers’ personally identifiable information private.

It is unfortunate that CityBridge inadvertently posted code on Github for an R&D project they were working on. CityBridge is not permitted to use code that tracks the precise location of users on the LinkNYC network. Contrary to the story, we have significant audit power and are relentless in working to ensure that our franchisee is in compliance with all the terms of our contract, including the Privacy Policy. Should we ever have cause to believe that that or any other suspect code is in fact in use, we will investigate, ascertain the situation, and use our enforcement powers to mete out appropriate consequences.

In the 21st century, government’s responsibility to keep its people safe extends to the digital sphere. That is a sacrosanct responsibility that has been fundamental to the LinkNYC program since its inception. In other words, technology will continue to evolve, but these values will not. We will maintain a steadfast commitment to user privacy, and make that commitment real on the streets of New York City as LinkNYC continues to expand in all five boroughs.

Samir Saini

Commissioner, New York City Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications