Donate

Yes, LinkNYC Kiosks Are Giant Data-Harvesting Surveillance Cameras, Obviously

The camera may be the least of your problems.
Dashed Arrow
The camera may be the least of your problems. Jake Dobkin/Gothamist

Earlier this week, we got word that some nameless, faceless vandal had been scooting around town, smashing up dozens of LinkNYC kiosks in the West Village, Chelsea, and midtown. But because the vandal chose to target giant camera-equipped data sponges, he remained neither faceless nor nameless for long: Police arrested 41-year-old Juan Rodriguez on Wednesday, charging him with multiple counts of criminal mischief for allegedly vandalizing 42 of the free wireless hubs.

Police identified Rodriguez using security camera footage captured by the kiosks themselves: In one video, he can allegedly be seen approaching one of the data monoliths and hurling a brick directly into its all-seeing face. While LinkNYC itself bemoaned the man's decision to interrupt "a valuable public service [for] many of the city's most vulnerable"—referring to the free WiFi available to all passersby—others argued that the company had put a thin philanthropic veneer on its profit-oriented business model, and good riddance.

Still others seemed surprised to learn that the kiosks, which have been around since 2016 and are owned by a consortium called CityBridge, come camera-equipped. Surely a private technology company wouldn't use their devices to surreptitiously spy on us, right? Such a thing would be unprecedented, appalling, and deeply deeply creepy.

As I type this, I can see my computer's tiny camera eye rolling in exasperation because of course the robots are always watching you; watching you is their favorite thing to do. It's the semi-open question of how LinkNYC watches you, and it does with the information it gathers, that gives people pause.

Wait, what are Link NYC kiosks again?
Maybe some of you thought these sidewalk towers were just strange speakers some Mister Softee enthusiast rigged to pipe a creepy carnival soundtrack into your pedestrian movements. They are so much more than that! Mayor Bill de Blasio first announced the coming of free WiFi hubs in 2014, heralding them as "a critical step toward a more equal, open, and connected city for every New Yorker, in every borough." In return for that unfettered Internet access, the LinkNYC overlords (namely, Sidewalk Labs, a major CityBridge investor and a Google property) would collect user data that would in turn tailor the ads (which helped fund the project) to the viewer. No such thing as a free lunch, I'm told.

The short answer: LinkNYC kiosks are privately owned, public WiFi devices for which we pay in privacy dollars.

So they are watching us!
I mean, yeah, but that should not surprise anyone: We know that the apps, certain buildings, notable ugly artworks, basically anything internet-equipped constantly siphon our data, sometimes selling it off to advertisers who then devise new ways to snatch money from your wallet. Why should your friendly internet wireless kiosk be any different?

Have LinkNYC kiosks always had the cameras?
According to the Intercept, cameras became standard-issue in 2017. Now, LinkNYC kiosks have three cameras each, two of which serve security purposes and one of which is just for your video call enjoyment. With respect to the latter, LinkNYC promises that it will not store any footage from your calls. With respect to the security cameras, here's what Link has to say:

There are two security cameras on each Link. Footage captured in the cameras is stored for no longer than seven days, unless the footage is necessary to investigate an incident.

All data and footage from LinkNYC cameras is subject to CityBridge's privacy policy and we will not use or share this footage except (1) to improve Services and ensure the performance and security of the structures, (2) to detect or address illegal activity with a Link, (3) in response to vandalism, or (4) when required by law or to protect your safety, including during an emergency involving potential harm.

A LinkNYC spokesperson clarified that the company does not regularly review a live feed of security camera footage, nor does it necessarily keep the cameras rolling at all times. Rather, it compiles the footage in a database, which—as mentioned—automatically wipes itself after seven days. Only certain, senior Link employees can access the videos, and the company will only share their content in cases of Link-related vandalism, subpoenas, and court orders.

In my humble opinion, though, the fact that LinkNYC kiosks physically watch you with cameras is not the biggest thing you need to worry about here: It's not insignificant, of course, but storefronts and traffic lights and human passersby all have cameras attached to them, after all. If surveillance and the invasion of your privacy concerns you, then your real enemy is the coding nightmare that, according to the Intercept, may allow the company to constantly track the devices you connect to the kiosks' WiFi, and to better bombard you with lucrative ads. Another fear, espoused by the New York Civil Liberties Union, is that LinkNYC kiosks might be compiling a "massive database" of user information that then becomes vulnerable to hackers or "unwarranted NYPD surveillance."

LinkNYC has said they don't do this, although their privacy policy admits to collecting a hell of a lot of user data. It also promises that LinkNYC "will not store your browsing history or track the websites you visit when you use your personal device to access the Services," and that it does "not collect information about your precise location." (With the caveat that "we know where we provide WiFi services, so when you use the Services we can determine your general location.") Unfortunately it seems clear that they have the power to do all of the above, and then you have to ask yourself if you trust them not to wield it.

To my mind, the security cameras are the least of your problems.

This story has been updated with information that LinkNYC provided after publication.

Featured in News