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An Interview with Anti-Surveillance Activists ReThinkLinkNYC on Tech, Privacy & the Future of Smart Cities

The struggle to preserve privacy and oppose surveillance is a global one, with many individuals and groups sharing common concerns and goals. It is very important that those of us who care, network and compare notes.

Corporations that earn their money by harvesting, analyzing and selling their users’ data are always working on expanding their market share and ability to reach their target demographics.

Here in the UK, BT has partnered with InLink to replace traditional phone booths with touchscreen kiosks that provide advertizing screen space, free WiFi and calls.

There has been a slow but steady stream of articles in the media questioning the privacy implications of allowing private companies to install street furniture like this, that can easily monetise the location and other user data of anyone using its WiFi services. There are also concerns about anti-social behaviour surrounding the kiosks, Ross Atkin has written about the corporate surveillance angle, and Adrian Short has concerns about planning permission, given that these kiosks are only really nominally phone booths any more.

This uneasiness mirrors coverage that these kiosks have received in the US, in particular I recommend checking out Ava Kofman’s article in The Intercept.

Free WiFi and calls are great ideas, but when the trade off is shady surveillance techniques hidden behind corporate double speak and vague user agreements we need to ask if there is a better way to go about providing these services.

As Link kiosks are installed throughout the UK, most recently close to home for me, in Glasgow, I reached out to ReThinkLinkNYC, activists who oppose the installation of Link kiosks in New York, to get their perspective on the implications of this tech for city residents.

To find out more about their group and their campaign, check out their website or follow them on Twitter.

If you could tell people in Glasgow one thing about these kiosks and why they should be worried about them, what would it be?

ReThinkLinkNYC: The capability of these kiosks tracking and selling your every move, which healthy or unhealthy restaurant you visit as well as how often and how long, your every acquaintance, and when you leave and return home is technically feasible and there is no opting out. It’s as if you’re a celebrity hounded by paparazzi that never sleeps, and there’s no fat paycheck for you. It’s royalty free, despite the billions being made behind the scenes by companies.

In the words of Culture Jedi, “Data protection is not about protecting privacy; it never was. It’s about protecting democracy. Now, more than ever, the US needs civil rights legislation that protects the data of vulnerable communities.

When companies want to enter our physical space with devices that collect information it makes sense that people will have questions, how forthcoming has LinkNYC been when queried by concerned residents?

ReThinkLinkNYC: Not very. Common tactics LinkNYC has used include dodging questions by answering around them or simply not responding.

Over and over again when it comes to tech we see the usage of words like “free” or phrases similar to “at no cost”, what do you think about these labels in regards to LinkNYC services?

ReThinkLinkNYC: Their claims are misleading — in a way, false advertising, which is illegal in the United States. When a CEO of a business that collects users’ data gives a presentation that is titled “Data is the New Oil: How Will MoviePass Monetize It?”, that’s a hint as to how much our data is worth: billions if not trillions. The CEO in question is Mitch Lowe.

What kind of problems have resulted from the installation of these kiosks in New York, technical and non-technical? What are your concerns for the future, as more are rolled out?

ReThinkLinkNYC: While we may have laws that get close to equality and rights for all, the reality of daily life is quite different. Everything from who is “StopNFrisked”, to the bias that permeates decisions in school, work, healthcare. Algorithms rely on massive data sets that human experts in math can not predict what they will do in many instances. Is it right for a corporation (or government) to be secretly collecting this? What’s at stake is power. Power over understanding the forces that are controlling our lives. If we don’t want to live in a dictatorship or authoritarian state, we must reverse the plutocracy we are in back to the spirit of a democracy.

There are numerous physical probs with kiosks. Non-stop glaring LED displays (that frequently have ’seizures’), blank tablets, and possibly end up marking phone calls made from Links as “Scam likely”!

There’s the additional ambient noise b/c of massive cooling required to units in summer & too damn tall in a city with tall buildings. -Why the added pressure to feel bombarded in what is public space — our sidewalk. Dangerously blocks line-of-sight for cyclists, pedestrians, and vehicles at intersections. Use by vulnerable populations (homeless or those in nontraditional economies) has been fuel for some as a social backlash against these marginalized communities. (People are ‘yelling’ into the ‘phone’ — there’s no handset!) When compassion breaks down, our ability to have a society that truly cares for humans (not just as a commodity) suffers.

There will be no place to hide as more are rolled out. In NYC, more than 1,600 kiosks are up and the majority are in Manhattan, the wealthiest borough. It’s already common to run into a kiosk every block. Once the rest are constructed, which will total 7,500, the area will literally be blanketed by kiosks that are equipped with 30 sensors, 3 cameras, Bluetooth beacons, and microphones.

Simply walking near one, passersby will be recorded via the kiosk’s cameras. Accidentally left your smartphone’s WiFi and Bluetooth radio on? The kiosks can collect your device’s unique MAC address, which reveals the manufacturer. Combine this anonymous data with data from other sources and the set is deanonmyized.

In the United States, we unfortunately have a Supreme Court ruling called The Third Party Doctrine. It states that any data given to a third party no longer belongs to that person and the third party can do whatever it wants with the data as outlined in its privacy policy, written in deliberate vague legalese.

LinkNYC will collect facial features, gait, and location data. This bears repeating: there is no opting out. Step a foot outside and New Yorkers and visitors alike will have their information hoovered up.

Photo courtesy of Sky News.

The kiosks that have been installed in Glasgow are physically identical to the ones in NYC, though with their two non-user activated cameras apparently disabled because of privacy concerns, what does this say about the usage of these two additional cameras in NYC?

ReThinkLinkNYC: Simply said, non-essential. These cameras are not essential to the function of the kiosks. In NYC, the kiosks are being advertised as a way to bring broadband internet to the communities that need it most. Ironically, most are, and will continue to be, in Manhattan.

Per the recent Intercept article titled Are New York’s Free LinkNYC Internet Kiosks Tracking Your Movements? by Ava Kofman, LinkNYC first stated that there “may” be cameras. The next year, they said there are cameras but are not operational. They became operational not long after. Then after being pressured for more information about the cameras’ functions by various privacy organizations, LinkNYC clarified that the cameras are to catch vandalisers and that recorded footage is only stored for 7 days.

The boiling frog adage will have to be invoked here as it is very apropos.

In a way the story of LinkNYC replacing phone booths with user data harvesting kiosks is the story of “smart cities”, the promised advantages versus the more hidden downsides, how best do you think local government can integrate technology without selling out their residents?

ReThinkLinkNYC: In the United States we have a sort of mantra: government by the people, for the people. In other words, government needs to create legislation that protects its people. Once strong, correct legislations are in place, technology can be integrated around them. Then, by law, no company or government can sell out residents.

It’s a long shot in this country. But history has proven that if enough citizens take action, the government will heed.