Privacy Concerns Raised Over NYC’s Free Wi-Fi

The NYCLU (New York Civil Liberties Union) raised privacy concerns in a press release over LinkNYC – New York City’s new public Wi-Fi network –  which aims to “replace over 7,500 pay phones across the five boroughs with new structures called Links”. These “Links” will “provide superfast, free public Wi-Fi, phone calls, device charging and a tablet for Internet browsing, access to city services, maps and directions.”

As with most things that are free, they usually come with strings attached. The NYCLU points out that the company behind LinkNYC, CityBridge, retains “a vast amount of information about users – often indefinitely – building a massive database that carries a risk of security breaches and unwarranted NYPD surveillance.”

They also brought up that the database would be an attractive target for hackers and law enforcement.

“The sheer volume of information gathered by this powerful network will create a massive database of information that will present attractive opportunities for hackers and for law enforcement surveillance, and will carry an undue risk of abuse, misuse and unauthorized access.”

Another concern the NYCLU raised was the fact that users must give CityBridge their email address and agree to their terms and conditions.

Agreeing to the terms and conditions would allow CityBridge to collect information about:

  • What websites they visit on their devices
  • Where and how long they linger on certain information on a webpage
  • What links they click on

According to CityBridge’s privacy policy, they will make “reasonable efforts” to remove this information but only if the user has been inactive for 12 months, which implies that those who regularly use LinkNYC will have their information retained forever. Also in its privacy policy is a section that states that data collected by environmental sensors or cameras at the LinkNYC kiosks may be available to the city or NYPD.

Jen Hensley, general manager of LinkNYC, responded to these concerns saying, “New York City and CityBridge have created a customer-first privacy policy, and will never sell any user’s personal information. LinkNYC does not collect or store any data on users’ personal web browsing on their own devices, CityBridge would require a subpoena or similar lawful request before sharing any data with the NYPD or law enforcement, and we will make every effort to communicate government requests to impacted users. Link cameras are currently inactive and are not designed to feed into any NYPD systems.”

In regards to these privacy concerns, senior staff attorney at the NYCLU, Mariko Hirose, said “Internet access is not a choice, it’s a modern-life necessity, the city’s public Wi-Fi network should set the bar for privacy and security to help ensure that New Yorkers do not have to sacrifice their rights and freedoms to sign online.”

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