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Free Wi-Fi kiosks expose New York's digital divide

Alhassan Mohammed (left), a former professional soccer player, uses the free Wi-Fi at LinkNYC kiosks to call his family in Ghana.

New York

WHEN New York City announced in 2014 that a private company would replace pay phones with thousands of kiosks offering free Wi-Fi, Mayor Bill de Blasio called it "a critical step toward a more equal, open, and connected city".

Five years later, many New Yorkers regard the 9 1/2-foot panels as little more than miniature billboards and a source of amusing city trivia. (Did you know Einstein's eyeballs are kept in a safe box in the city?)

But for some, the LinkNYC kiosks are a vital way to remain connected.Alhassan Mohammed, a former professional soccer player from Ghana who sells tickets for a sightseeing bus near Times Square, uses Wi-Fi from a kiosk to make free calls to his family on WhatsApp.

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A man who identified himself as Valentine, said the kiosks, which also offer free domestic calls, help him stay in touch with his son while he's enrolled in a residential drug treatment program in Manhattan; he doesn't have a cellphone. "It is very beneficial - trust me," he said. "I wish there were more."

Yet users like these may be the very ones that the network of kiosks leaves out. The company behind LinkNYC, CityBridge, has installed just 1,774 of the 7,500 promised kiosks.

LinkNYC's map shows that kiosks are most densely clustered in Manhattan and in its bordering neighbourhoods - places where people are not particularly desperate for their services, but where it may be easier for the company, which relies on advertising revenue, to sell ads. Many of the city's poorest areas have few kiosks, or none at all.

A spokesman for CityBridge said the company is still building the network, and said it had already installed kiosks in Harlem, the South Bronx, Jamaica, Queens and "many neighborhoods where the digital divide is largest."

But this year saw concerns over data privacy grow, and some residents say they don't want LinkNYC to spread any farther into their neighbourhoods, fearing that the kiosks, which are equipped to collect all manner of data, could be misused. "I wouldn't want to support the expansion of this project until we can feel confident that our community's privacy is being respected," said Kristen Gonzalez, an organiser in Queens who also sits on her community board, which covers the neighborhoods of Elmhurst and Corona.

From the time the Wi-Fi kiosks appeared in 2016, activists and civil liberties groups warned that they could collect data from users, or even those who pass within range, creating a huge database that could be used by law enforcement or sold to corporate interests. (In order to use the Wi-Fi, a person needs to register with an e-mail address.)

Until recently, LinkNYC got attention for other reasons. In 2016, the company had to disable Internet browsers on kiosk tablets amid complaints that people were using them to watch pornography; business owners have claimed the kiosks are "magnets for the homeless" and have asked the company to disable USB ports, too. (Those seem to be the most-used feature - street vendors, deliverymen and tourists also rely on them to charge their phones.)

This year, privacy concerns returned to the fore. In April, a man smashed 42 kiosks over several days. The Police Department shared video of the "smash spree", which had clearly been captured by a kiosk, alerting the public to built-in cameras (each kiosk has three) - and raising questions about what other data CityBridge was gathering and who might be able to access it.

CityBridge has repeatedly assured the public that it is committed to privacy. The company does collect e-mail addresses, a spokesman for the company said, but it does not store or track what people do on the Wi-Fi or employ user data to create targeted ads. Video footage is intended to deter vandalism and is kept for only a week. The company also said it is not using facial recognition software. And no audio is being recorded or stored, they say.

The company shares information with authorities only when required by subpoena or court order. (In the case of the smash spree, video footage was shared with police to protect the system, the spokesman said.)

In May, however, a college student discovered code on GitHub, a platform for sharing software code, that appeared to indicate that LinkNYC was collecting location data. CityBridge denied it, saying the code was intended for research and development purposes, and contained employees' data only. But the discovery further stoked fears about LinkNYC.

Menacing signs began appearing on some kiosks. One warned people they were being videotaped. Another said, "No Big Brother Plz, Thx," and was signed by an activist group, Rethink Link. The quiet protests have continued: graffiti scrawled in Sharpie on some kiosks said, "Google is not your friend." (Sidewalk Labs, which is owned by Google's parent company, is a lead investor in Intersection, part of the CityBridge consortium.)

The mayor's office has stood behind CityBridge. A spokeswoman, Laura Feyer, said in a statement last week that "privacy is central to the LinkNYC program" and "CityBridge is not allowed to sell data or track the movements of users, period."

As for the uneven geographic distribution of the kiosks, Ms Feyer said: "We are disappointed that CityBridge has not fulfilled recent deployment targets and will continue to use every power we have to ensure the program can deliver results for all New Yorkers."

The mayor spoke of a city more united by LinkNYC. Instead, the kiosks seem to point to an enduring divide. NYTIMES