The free-WIFI experiment

Times Square is a fragile place. In 2016 a solitary homeless man was caught watching porn using the tablet of a free WIFI kiosk located around the Square. Immediately the news made a big echo of this issue tracing an imaginary relationship between this man and the recent past of the zone, the one before its renovation. A tourist interviewed by the New York Post was complaining about the situation saying that right now Times Square was much worse than in the ’70s because at least at that time the porn was indoors. 

Suddenly, it was not just one single man. It turned out that watching porn using those WIFI kiosks was a repetitive behavior of some homeless men there and around the whole city. But the case in Times Square that was not even the first one was the one that got more relevance. That is due to the capacity of hyperbolizing that Times Square has. To include this area into a specific piece of news is giving the information more relevance and visibility. This is a magnetic place that has the ability to capture the eyes of many people inside and outside the city. 

Those kiosks, called links, are multifunctional devices spread out around the five boroughs. Using those towers it is possible to call any land phone number in the United States, including 911. They also offer the option of charging smartphones, as well as of navigating through the city services. But their main feature is that one can go online, either using the browser of the tablet or via WIFI. All is for free. Well, kind of. The kiosks’ business model is based on showing ads and collecting users’ data. So, the users are paying that service with their personal and behavioral information. 

LinkNYC is a project of CityBridge a consortium made up of three companies: Intersection, Qualcomm, and CIVIQ Smartscapes. The idea of creating those devices came out of the intention of replacing the city paid-phone system for a more modern technology that would provide a broader service to the whole New York citizens. Especially to the poorest. Those experimental spots were launched in December 2015 after more than three years of work that included a pilot program in 2012. This program consisted in adding a router to the existed paid-phones, and a “call for proposals” in 2013 for substituting, in a permanent way, those old structures.

In theory, the installation of those kiosks represented a significant advance in both the implementation of new technologies of communication and information in urban places as well as the usage of the public structure as a strategy for improving the street-walking experience. Nevertheless, when the links where on the sidewalks the whole strategy had to be re-adjusted. That is something usual, someone could say. And they are right. The setting-up of a project like this in a context like that requires constant feedback from the users that are, in this case, a pretty heterogeneous target group.

Since the beginning, one of the aims of this idea was to provide better connectivity, offering a service more in concordance to our times. It means, more digital, sustainable, and connected. Those intelligent towers were on the streets proposing a new model of a smart city. But the response of a portion of the New Yorkers was a little bit unexpected. They started to use those kiosks in a particular way: watching porn, disturbing some people around listening to music with a high volume and monopolizing the spots. Those kinds of situations forced to a readjustment the whole project.

The most critical concern of the three above mentioned was relate to the NSFW content. Despite a few improvements in the algorithm that was regulating the kind of websites, people continued finding ways for watching porn and visiting sites with inappropriate content using the incorporated tablets. So, the final answer of LinkNYC was disabling the browser of the tablets. Despite that, it is still possible to navigate using the tablets through the city services. The WIFI service never was suspended. 

A pedestrian using the WIFI provided by a link

Other concerns about the implementation of those kiosks and their way of operating were regarding the users’ privacy. As I already pointed before, since the beginning these towers were collecting users’ personal and behavioral data. The reason for doing it was regarding operative and commercial porpoises. But some people started to suspect that the kiosks were more an instrument for surveillance —especially for low-low-income communities than just a free-WIFI program. The presence of Google as the owner of one of the companies participating in CityBridge (Intersection) increased the halo of suspicious around the project.

Even a group of New Yorkers decided to create an online platform, RethinkLinkNYC, with the intention of restructuring the whole LinksNYC program. Their demands are first, to remove all the elements and features they consider can be used as surveillance devices: Bluetooth beacons, cameras, and the whole collecting data strategy. Second, they want that the city provides a community-WIFI service based on people, not on corporations. Their agenda is mostly developing online activism as well as the implementation of a campaign for sticking anti-LinksNYC stickers around the city.

Each one of the links has the possibility of storing the location, the kind of device, browser, operating system and much other sensitive data from the users’ phones. But this algorithmic mode of control is not the only one. The towers are equipped with two cameras recording the area surrounding the device. Yes, the cameras can record the user too. The version of CityBridge is that they are collecting that information for administrative, research, security, statistical, and testing reasons. Moreover, they can share it with a third party in many different scenarios. If you want to use this service, please read first where your data is going.

During the first field-exploration I made in Times Square, in September 2017, I did not see much people using the installed tablets in the kiosks. But what I noticed there was how pedestrians were accessing to the free WIFI. It looks like the other offered services are there just for being used in a few specific cases. Initiatives like the digital maps provided by the Department of Transportation (DOT) are a good alternative talking about localization.

I have three kiosks identified in the area of my fieldwork. One is located at 7th Ave. & W. 47th St. The second is at W. 48th St. & 7th Ave. The last one is over the W. 41st St & Broadway. This one, the third kiosk, was the spot I saw with more people accessing other services than just the WIFI. Nevertheless, most of the time it was either someone charging their phone or a few tourists taking a look at what that tower is. 

Although I was not there looking 24-7 at the links, I never noticed anything strange that I could call as a bad behavior regarding the use of this service. At the other way around, I cannot talk about what I cannot see. I mean the performance of those devices regarding the user’s data. Nonetheless, it looks like after some adjustments the experiment works now. The question still I have is for whom?