Is LinkNYC Going to Mine New York City?

New York City’s free WiFi system is super fast, but fast and free raises a lot of questions. For now, everyone is simply enjoying the awesome connectivity. But the more privacy and security conscious are worried that these NYC folks are giving up a lot that they don’t know about to get that free Internet. LinkNYC, the city-wide system, is not properly set up to ensure privacy for personal information.

But CityBridge Doesn’t Really Care

CityBridge – composed of the companies CIVIQ, Intersection and Qualcomm – is the group behind LinkNYC which has put up the WiFi booths found all over the city. Users reported gigabit speeds from the system’s four modules that were set up for beta testing. This amazing WiFi is enough to get everyone excited, but the booths are not just hotspots. They provide USB ports for charging smartphones and other devices, free nationwide video calls, maps, and access to emergency services. They are replacing the outdated payphones and adding free Internet access for the public’s use. And CityBridge plans to have thousands of its LinkNYC booths scattered over all 5 boroughs of New York City. This is truly great public service. The problem is that most people don’t know what’s behind it all.

A good look into the terms and conditions of the LinkNYC system shows that CityBridge does not really care about the security of users’ personally identifiable information. The New York Civil Liberties Union raised this concern when they realized that CityBridge was not doing enough to protect users. For starters, CityBridge takes and stores user data. The terms say that the group will make reasonable efforts to keep that data for no more than a year. One year is already a very long time to be storing anyone’s data, especially if it is only for troubleshooting. And that word “reasonable” is not comforting in the least.

Users’ data could be kept by CityBridge forever without anyone being the wiser, and we don’t even know how secure that data will be while it is being stored or if the companies involved have a secure means of disposing of the data if and when they do. This leaves users open to cybercriminal attacks that no one is going to take responsibility for. This is an especially serious problem for low-income households, who are most likely to make the most use of the free WiFi system.

On top of storing the personal ID’s of users, CityBridge is not taking a very strong stance with regard to government data requests. All the group promises is a reasonable – there’s that word again – effort to inform users if their data has been requested by a government agency. CityBridge is a group of private entities, and we are used to these guys drooling over data. But LinkNYC is a public service and the local NYC government seems not to care that the city has been left wide open for CityBridge to mine residents’ data.

It is important to mention also that Google has a vested interest in LinkNYC. Intersection, one of the three big companies composing CityBridge, is the result of a partnership between the two companies Titan and Control Group, which were recently acquired by Google’s Sidewalk Labs. If we have learned anything about how Google thinks and operates, we should be worried about what this means for our personal data.

The Future of LinkNYC

LinkNYC is a New York City project, but there’s a lot more to it than getting one city set up with 4,000 hotspot booths by the end of the year. The goal is to have 10,000 of these booths all over the city, and from there to expand to other cities, making the concern over privacy a national one. But it doesn’t even end there since the big dogs behind LinkNYC are planning to get the technology implemented globally. We can’t help but think how happy US government agencies will be to have this new and awesome source of data to tap into. We are not sure what this global expansion means for US government data requests, but we believe that the temptation to have a single source for a ton of foreign data is going to be too sweet for the intelligence community to pass up. They lost Google along with the other top 8 Internet companies after the Snowden revelations, and now there is an even juicier prospect peeping over the horizon.

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