Smart sidewalk kiosks: Thin edge of the wedge for city monitoring?

Smart sidewalk kiosks: Thin edge of the wedge for city monitoring?

The new LinkNYC sidewalk kiosks will offer New Yorkers free high-speed Wi-Fi, device charging and tablets for web browsing, but they are capable of much more.

Similar kiosks can monitor pedestrian, bike and car traffic; track passing wireless devices; listen to street noise; and help identify unattended packages, according to documents obtained under public records laws by Recode.

The documents are part of a pitch by Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs to cities in the Transportation Department’s Smart City Challenge, a July 1 Recode article states. Cities can choose which data to collect, while the company would use the wireless device and video data to calculate average roadway speeds and travel times, and feed the information into Google Maps.

“Sidewalk suggests that the video sensors might spot ‘abandoned packages or objects,’ raising the possibility of the technology being used to foil terrorist incidents,” according to the article. “More mundanely, the company says the camera could also detect clogged drains and standing water on roadways.”

Additionally, the information could help cities track traffic congestion, identify gas leaks and monitor air quality, Recode quotes a promotional flyer as saying.

All data would be anonymized, the company said, and personally identifiable information encrypted and routinely deleted after being aggregated. No raw data would be sold or shared with a third party, including Alphabet and Google, the article adds.

The Village Voice, however, disagrees, calling the kiosks “data-hoovering sentinels” that Google is using to extend “its near-monopoly on information about our online behavior to include our behavior in physical space as well.” The New York chapter of the ACLU also has voiced privacy concerns.

The deal that New York City struck calls for eventual installation of 7,500 kiosks, the gigabit internet infrastructure connecting them and the free Wi-Fi, national VOIP calling and USB charging -- all at no cost to the city. Rather, LinkNYC will built and managed by CityBridge, a consortium of private companies that plans to finance the initiative by advertising.

"If CityBridge is using a business model that is not charging, and they are spending a bunch of money putting these things in, they are going to be monetizing the data hard," Lee Tien, a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation told The Village Voice. "That means that they are always thinking about how to collect your data and how to profit off of it."

Nevertheless, the kiosks offer a way for cities to tackle urban challenges with 21st century technology.

Sidewalk Labs offered Smart City Challenge winner Columbus, Ohio, up to 100 kiosks in four neighborhoods. Each “includes data analytics [that would allow Columbus to] better understand the urban environment via environmental sensors and machine learning algorithms that integrate numerous data sources,” the article quotes Sidewalk Labs as saying.

The company has also been working with Argonne National Laboratory to test sensors in four categories: environmental, air pollutant, natural and man-made behavior and city activity. The first measures humidity, atmospheric pressure and temperatures, the article states. Air pollutant sensors track ozone, carbon monoxide and nitrogen. The third category measures vibrations from vehicles, magnetic fields, sound and infrared, visible and ultraviolet light, while the final group collects “anonymized sightings of wireless devices (probably via Wi-Fi) and a video camera watching the kiosk’s surroundings,” Recode states.

In New York City, the first kiosks were installed in January, with 500 expected to be operational by the end of summer. Ultimately, 7,500 LinkNYC stations that will be erected across the five boroughs by 2020.

For cities interested in the kiosks, Sidewalk Labs provides the kiosks for free, and cities are responsible for installing them at a cost of $12,900 each and connecting the gigabit internet optical fiber for another $15,000, according to Recode. “Cities would also contribute $5,000 per kiosk to a ‘warranty and hardware refresh fund,’ presumably to allow for repairs and upgrades,” the article adds.

Each kiosk will also have annual costs of about $1,440 for maintenance, $2,400 for power and $8,400 in fiber charges, making first-year expenses for 100 kiosks about $4.5 million, Recode said. Advertising would help offset the costs and let the kiosks pay for themselves in less than two years, the article adds. Each kiosk would generate about $30,000 a year for Alphabet through digital advertising.

Editor's note: This article was changed to July 15 to delete mention of Google and Alphabet, its parent company, as providers of the LinkNYC kiosks. Those devices are provided by CityBridge, a consortium of companies that includes Sidewalk Labs. Additionally, the enhanced sensing features mentioned in the second paragraph are not available on the LinkNYC kiosks.

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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