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