LinkNYC: What Sounds Like a Great Idea Can Have Some Serious Downsides

This article was published in the Summer issue of Circuits, a periodical published by the Computer & Technology Section of the State Bar of Texas

Earlier this decade, New York City received an idea.   The idea was to provide free wi-fi to pedestrians at street level within the City. While the idea was sound, the implementation of that idea that precipitated a controversy.[1] This controversy nicely illustrates why planning with “privacy in mind” is so important. 

In 2014, the Mayor of New York City announced the culmination of a bidding process, wherein private contractors would provide roughly 1,000 wi-fi kiosks to the five boroughs of the City. Each of the kiosks would provide free wi-fi, phone calls, charging stations for mobile devices, and a tablet which could be used to access city services, maps etc. To fund the kiosks, the City allowed the installation of two 55-inch displays for time-based advertising. The advertising revenue was intended to fund the entire cost of the kiosk, so that the users and taxpayers would not have to pay anything for access to the kiosks. So far, so good.

The system was dubbed “LinkNYC”.[2] A private consortium called CityBridge won the contract to administer the kiosk network in 2014. Before long, however, things started going sour. After much of the up-front money was spent and infrastructure put in place, CityBridge dropped a bombshell. The first privacy policy[3] promulgated by CityBridge allowed for the collection and (indefinite) retention of “vast amount[s] of information about users” that “carries a risk of security breaches and unwarranted NYPD surveillance.”[4] Since the sale of citizen data wasn’t needed to fund the network, CityBridge was poised to coup a windfall off of citizens. The City was caught flat-footed.

Fortunately, citizen-oriented organizations did suspect the worst and sounded the alarm. A classic New York-style kerfuffle ensued, the result of which bequeathed a second privacy policy[5] that, while being more benign than its predecessor, still had much to be desired. The lesson here is that the City government should have anticipated that privately owned, data-handling companies might take advantage of the situation, and provided adequate oversight. The City’s lack of oversight resulted in unnecessary delays for LinkNYC as well as many upset contractors and citizen-users.

[1]   See, e.g., Ava Kofman, “Are New York’s Free LinkNYC Internet Kiosks Tracking Your Movements?” (The Intercept, September 8, 2018) available at

[2] The current LinkNYC website can be found at:

[3] See, e.g., “NYCLU: City’s Public Wi-Fi Raises Privacy Concerns” (New York Civil Liberties Union, March 16, 2016), available at:

[4] Id.

[5] See, e.g., “LinkNYC Improves Privacy Policy, Yet Problems Remain” (The Electronic Frontier Foundation, October 4, 2017), available at