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Privacy Concerns Raised About New York City’s Free Wi-Fi

The New York Civil Liberties Union says LinkNYC "carries a risk of security breaches and unwarranted NYPD surveillance."

[Photo: via LinkNYC]

The New York Civil Liberties Union has issued a statement expressing privacy concerns about LinkNYC, New York City’s free public Wi-Fi that officially launched last month. The free service sees old phone booths replaced with LinkNYC hubs that act as wireless routers that provide fiber Internet to anyone with a wireless device. LinkNYC is offered through a partnership between the city and CityBridge, a consortium of companies behind the LinkNYC system.

In the statement issued by the NYCLU, the civil liberties organization raised privacy concerns on two fronts. First, it says that because users must submit their email addresses to use the service, and since those addresses are retained by CityBridge along with the user’s browsing history, LinkNYC is an attractive target for hackers looking to steal personal information.

"CityBridge’s privacy policy only offers to make ‘reasonable efforts’ to clear out this massive amount of personally identifiable user information, and even then, only if there have been 12 months of user inactivity," the NYCLU said. "New Yorkers who use LinkNYC regularly will have their personally identifiable information stored for a lifetime and beyond."

The second serious concern NYCLU has with the LinkNYC is that it is open to "unwarranted NYPD surveillance."

"New Yorkers’ private online activities shouldn’t be used to create a massive database that’s within the ready grasp of the NYPD," Donna Lieberman, executive director of the NYCLU, said in the statement. "Free public Wi-Fi can be an invaluable resource for this city, but New Yorkers need to know there are too many strings attached."

Addressing the privacy and hacking concerns Natalie Grybauskas, a spokesperson for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's office, told the Huffington Post "New York City and CityBridge have created customer-first privacy protections to ensure our users' personal information stays that way—personal. We will continue to work to ensure legitimate concerns are addressed."

As for questions regarding surveillance of users by law enforcement, Jen Hensley, general manager of LinkNYC, told Huffington Post, "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."

However, the comments made by LinkNYC and the mayor’s office don’t address one of NYCLU’s prime concerns raised in its statement: It wants to know "if the environmental sensors and cameras [on LinkNYC hubs] will be routinely feeding into any city or NYPD systems, including the controversial Domain Awareness System."

Update 3/17/2016 10:50 a.m. ET: A LinkNYC spokesperson reached out to us with a comment from Jen Hensley, general manager of LinkNYC, to address the final concern NYCLU had regarding LinkNYC’s cameras.

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," Hensley said. "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.

Update 3/17/2016 12:45 p.m. ET: NYC mayoral spokesperson Natalie Grybauskas has now reached out to us addressing NYCLU's concerns:

"New York City and CityBridge have created customer-first privacy protections to ensure our users’ personal information stays that way – personal. We believe our privacy policy is the best way to protect New Yorkers and LinkNYC users while they safely and securely enjoy free superfast Wi-Fi across the five boroughs. We will continue to work to ensure legitimate concerns are addressed."

The spokesperson also confirmed that LinkNYC's cameras and environmental sensors do not feed into the Domain Awareness System and that the NYPD would have to subpoena to obtain any information from the LinkNYC system. The spokesperson also confirmed that no personal information will be shared or sold for third-party use unless a subpoena or court order requires it.