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Wi-Fi Kiosks Replacing Payphones in Nyc

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A LinkNYC kiosk in New York City.

New York City has been replacing payphone kiosks with free Wi-Fi-enabled kiosks across all five boroughs, but has had to disable Internet access in them because the homeless reportedly loiter inside of them and use them to view pornography.

Credit: LinkNYC

Internet access is being disabled in the tablets inside LinkNYC kiosks because they are targets for homeless people who are reportedly loitering inside of them and using them to view pornography.

After receiving several complaints, LinkNYC said in a statement that "some users have been monopolizing the Link tablets and using them inappropriately, preventing others from being able to use them while frustrating the residents and businesses around them. The kiosks were never intended for anyone’s extended, personal use and we want to ensure that Links are accessible and a welcome addition to New York City neighborhoods."

A spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio said, "Removing the Internet browser from LinkNYC tablets will not affect the other great services LinkNYC provides – superfast Wi-Fi, free phone calls, or access to key City services -- but will address concerns we’ve heard from our fellow New Yorkers."

The city has been replacing the ubiquitous payphones dotting the streets of New York City with the free Wi-Fi-enabled kiosks across all five boroughs. It was anticipated that people would make short stops at the kiosks, but they have particularly attracted the homeless, who have taken advantage of the unlimited internet access to watch movies and play music for extended periods of time.

LinkNYC launched in January to provide New York City residents and visitors with free Wi-Fi connections to the Internet, as well as the ability to make free phone calls; a tablet for web browsing and accessing city services, maps, and directions, for those without their own Internet-capable device; device charging capabilities, and a 911 emergency button, according to Jen Hensley, general manager of LinkNYC. Over 350,000 people have already registered for the Wi-Fi, and the network is expanding every week, she says.

Each Link has a Wi-Fi range of at least 150 feet and can support hundreds of users simultaneously, Hensley says. After an initial registration, users are automatically connected when in range of a Link, and can connect from one Link to the next as they move up or down a Manhattan avenue.

The idea for Links came from former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration, which held a design competition to reimagine the New York City payphone, Hensley says. Two companies, Control Group and Titan, which have since merged to form Intersection, submitted a concept that envisioned a new communications network as a platform for high-speed connectivity and community and civic engagement, and were selected. In 2014, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration chose CityBridge, a consortium of companies that includes Intersection, Qualcomm, and CIVIQ Smartscapes, to develop and operate LinkNYC, which Hensley says will become the largest and fastest free public Wi-Fi network in the world. 

Each Link also has a digital screen on each side, offering brands advertising opportunities. More than 350 Links have been installed to date, with 7,500 to be installed across the city over the next several years.

"LinkNYC generates its own revenue through advertising on the Link's 55-inch digital ad displays, ensuring that the project comes at no cost to users or taxpayers," Hensley says, adding that no ads are inserted into a user’s browsing experience on either the tablet or their personal devices.

The program elicited "a very high caliber of advertisers" ranging from StreetEasy and Samsung to Delta Airlines, The Gap, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The ad revenue will generate more than $500 million for the city of New York over the next 12 years, and CityBridge will use some of that revenue to maintain and improve the service, Hensley says.

Some observers have expressed concerns over the privacy of information users share on Link. One concern is that while CityBridge maintains no personally identifiable information will be shared with third parties, anonymized data will be used so advertisers can make ads more relevant and targeted to people nearby, notes Aravindh Vanchesan, digital media industry analyst at Frost & Sullivan.

"Obviously they have to leverage the data in some way because that’s how they make this viable and … pay for itself,’’ he says. While hackers will "obviously be very interested in a public network like this, which over time will be used by millions of people," there is a paid, private network option in which the connection is completely encrypted, "so then the odds of their private information being compromised are lower, compared to the free public network, which is also only available to Apple devices currently," he says.

Vanchesan expects Android devices to be included soon since Google’s parent company, Alphabet, owns Sidewalk Labs, an investor in one of the CityBridge consortium members.

Others are concerned about hackers installing malware on the tablets and tracking data being transmitted back and forth, especially if users access non-encrypted web pages, he says. "Link’s USB outlets are connected to a power source only and cannot transfer data between a device and the Link,’’ says Hensley. "And like ATMs, Link sessions time-out after 30 seconds of inactivity, wiping all user sessions clean."

Vanchesan is giving CityBridge the benefit of the doubt for now, but the private watchdog New York City Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) sent a letter to the mayor’s office last spring stating it believes the vast amount of information gathered by the kiosks will present opportunities for hackers and for law enforcement surveillance, "and will carry an undue risk of abuse, misuse and unauthorized access. "

"New Yorkers’ private online activities shouldn’t be used to create a massive database that’s within the ready grasp of the NYPD," said Donna Lieberman, executive director of NYCLU, in a statement. "Free public Wi-Fi can be an invaluable resource for this city, but New Yorkers need to know there are too many strings attached."

Meanwhile, CityBridge has received "overwhelming interest from other cities around the world" about LinkNYC, Hensley says. "We think Link is a model for other cities and will be a catalyst in driving greater connectivity."

Esther Shein is a freelance technology and business writer based in the Boston area. 


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