Google Is Transforming NYC's Payphones Into a 'Personalized Propaganda Engine'
At six-five, Bill de Blasio is usually considerably taller than his conversation partners. But on a cold day in February, the mayor of New York City was on the corner of Third Avenue and 16th Street, interfacing with a nine-and-a-half-foot-tall slab, all sleek curves of metal and glass, that had recently appeared on the sidewalk outside the Mariella Pizza shop. The mayor was testing the monolith's local expertise — did it know the location of the pre-kindergarten program nearest to his Park Slope home? The machine passed the quiz, and, the mayoral mugging concluded, de Blasio turned to the microphone.
"You just witnessed some live history in the making," he told reporters assembled for the occasion. "That was the first official call from one of our state-of-the-art LinkNYC kiosks."
De Blasio's eagerness to label just about any accomplishment of his administration as historic is well-known, but he may have had a point in this case: The narrow, gleaming tower looming over him was the forerunner of a full-scale invasion. By the end of July, there will be 500 of them throughout the city. Initially they will replace what remain of the city's antique pay phones, but when all is said and done, the links, as they're being called, will number at least 7,500, a standing army of supersized digital foot soldiers blanketing streets throughout the five boroughs.
Within their imposing sci-fi form-factor, the links house an array of capabilities their puny analog forebears could only dream of: free national VOIP calling; USB charging stations; and, thanks to a brand-new network of high-speed fiber being laid under the streets for this purpose, free gigabit-speed internet, accessible either through a Chrome-powered tablet embedded in the face of the kiosk or via Wi-Fi on users' mobile devices. Sign up for the service once and your phone will automatically connect to the network whenever you're in range and your Wi-Fi is enabled, with one kiosk seamlessly handing you off to the next as you walk down the block. "It will be the biggest and fastest network in the world — and completely free of charge," de Blasio boasted. "One thing I know about my fellow New Yorkers, they like things that are completely free of charge."
Next to the mayor, the words "Hello World" shone out from the huge glass screens that take up most of the towers' flanks. As he spoke, the screens shifted and a new message appeared: "If You See Something, Say Something. Be Suspicious of Anything Unattended."
When de Blasio says that the LinkNYC network will be free, he doesn't just mean that New Yorkers will be able to log on without shelling out extortionate airport-Wi-Fi fees. He means the city and its taxpayers aren't paying a red cent for this historic leap forward in networked infrastructure. No public authority was constituted to build it. No bonds were issued, no fees levied, no taxes imposed, no rainy-day funds raided.
But maybe the kiosk warning should read, Be Suspicious of Anything Free in New York City. The city isn't building the network at all. It will be built, owned, and operated by a consortium of private companies calling itself CityBridge. The history and structure of CityBridge is tangled. When it was awarded the city franchise in 2014, the consortium included some of the biggest companies in their respective fields: Qualcomm, the telecom manufacturer; Civiq Smartscapes, a Comark Corporation company working on technologies for wired smart-cities; Control Group, the technology and design consultants; and the outdoor-advertising company Titan. Last summer, two of the core partners, Titan and Control Group, were bought up and merged into a new company, Intersection. Intersection, in turn, is owned by Sidewalk Labs. And Sidewalk Labs, an "urban innovation company," is owned by Alphabet, the renamed umbrella corporation most people still know as Google.
That LinkNYC is, ultimately, underwritten by Google should tell you a lot about why New York got so very lucky as to receive an unprecedentedly fast network of citywide public Wi-Fi — for "free." Not only is CityBridge going to lay miles of new fiber and operate, maintain, and upgrade the network at no cost to you the consumer, it's going to kick the city at least half a billion dollars over the next twelve years to boot.
The whole thing is financed by advertising. Each kiosk's twin 55-inch displays will carry targeted ads based on an audience profile algorithmically derived from the information the kiosks collect from their users. But as the old internet saw goes: If you're not paying for the product, you are the product. And that should give New Yorkers pause, says Lee Tien, a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
"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," Tien says. "That means that they are always thinking about how to collect your data and how to profit off of it."
We're often told that people no longer care about privacy, that we are willing to trade the most intimate details of our lives for cool free stuff — a search engine, travel directions, email. "People don't think about the sort of hazards created when their information is collected and put into a black box," says Linda Holliday, the CEO of Citia and an angel investor with a long career in the digital economy and marketing. "Companies are using our information to know us better than we know ourselves. They can predict that you're going to get divorced even before you know it. They know that you'll pay for business class even if you're asking for coach. And they're using that knowledge to make decisions about us without our even being aware of it."
But there is a different issue in play here: the right of the City of New York to surrender that data for us; the right of our elected officials — over the objections of some of the city's own watchdogs and in exchange for what is, viewed in the light of the city's $78 billion annual budget, chump change — to sell citizens' privacy off the back of a truck to a for-profit company.
Google, after all, is the company that made $75 billion in revenue last year by hoarding users' behavioral data to target advertising at them; that has been repeatedly fined for violating privacy standards in the United States and Europe; that actually went so far last year as to shit-can its own "Don't be evil" admonition to its employees in favor of "Obey the law" — presumably out of sheer exhaustion at being mocked about the gulf between that slogan and its own business model. Google is in the business of taking as much information as it can get away with, from as many sources as possible, until someone steps in to stop it. And user apathy, or inertia, or obliviousness — or all of the above — is one of Google's most valuable assets.
But LinkNYC marks a radical step even for Google. It is an effort to establish a permanent presence across our city, block by block, and to extend its online model to the physical landscape we humans occupy on a daily basis. The company then intends to clone that system and start selling it around the world, government by government, to as many as will buy. And every place that signs on will become another profit center in Google's advertising business, even as it extends its near-monopoly on information about our online behavior to include our behavior in physical space as well.
"It's a real-time, personalized propaganda engine," Douglas Rushkoff, a New York–based media theorist and author of the bestselling Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, told the Voice, "a multibillion-dollar manipulation apparatus, customized not to meet our consumer desires, but to overcome our psychic defense mechanisms. And now you want to unleash that on the entire city of New York as a public service? I'm sorry, that's a deal with the devil we really don't need."
The prospect of rolling out data-hoovering sentinels across the city and the globe is making people uneasy even in some surprising places — including inside Sidewalk Labs: As one urban-planning expert, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of bringing down Google's wrath on his sources, explained, at least some of the engineers involved are "smart enough to be scared of the implications of what they're building."
"A curated group of leaders in tech, media, and finance" gathered on April 5 in the hulking neoclassical building of Manhattan's Yale Club. One of the main draws of the Information Subscriber Summit was a talk entitled "Google City: How the tech juggernaut is reimagining cities — faster than you realize." The speaker was Dan Doctoroff, the founder and CEO of Sidewalk Labs and former CEO of finance-media giant Bloomberg LP, who served for six years as deputy mayor under Michael Bloomberg.
As deputy mayor, Doctoroff styled himself a sort of modern-day Robert Moses, an abrasive, elbow-throwing operative who presided over the glittery mega-projects — the Atlantic Yards, the High Line, the new World Trade Center, the West Side redevelopment — that helped define the city's transformation under Bloomberg into a playground for the wealthy and powerful.
Sidewalk Labs' overall mission is to "build products addressing big urban problems." At the April 5 talk, Doctoroff cast Sidewalk's data-driven innovations as only the latest in a string of world-historical technological revolutions — the steam engine, the electrical grid, the automobile — that have transformed the metropolis, forever disrupting the old order. "Cities are hard — you have people who have vested interests," Doctoroff mused to his interviewer, The Information editor Jessica Lessin. "You had to overcome big obstacles. But the technology ultimately cannot be stopped. And we think we're at that position now."
Doctoroff touted LinkNYC, the only project Sidewalk Labs was discussing publicly at the time, as a solution to New York's long-festering digital divide that has left the poor — often minorities — without adequate access to the internet. But he also made clear that his ultimate vision was far bigger. "We actually see LinkNYC as now beginning the process of expanding to other cities," Doctoroff said. With the network providing an enormous flow of data about city conditions, it could also serve as the backbone to all sorts of new smart-city applications. "We see it as a utility and so we're beginning to now apply it to other products and services."
Since the interview, the full scope of Sidewalk Labs' ambitions has become clearer. The company has offered to build Columbus, Ohio, a computerized traffic management system that experts fear might gut public bussing and drive the city into a state of dependence on Google technologies. Even more ambitious are Sidewalk Labs' plans for the creation of a "digital district," perhaps built on land owned by Google or some other company or ceded to the purpose by an existing government.
The idea of a city built de novo on the principles and values of technologists, unfettered by the inertia, red tape, and turf squabbles that burden actual cities where human beings already live, represents the apogee of messianic Silicon Valley thinking. The so-called "smart city," the one so wired with sensors and data-collection devices that its residents and operations move with the finely calibrated efficiency of clockwork or computer code, is a mirage techno-utopians have seen shimmering on the horizon for over a decade. Around the world, projects in various states of realization — South Korea's New Songdo, Masdar City in the United Arab Emirates, and PlanIT Valley in Portugal — all promise a vision of data-enriched urban living that looks like something out of a high-modernist fever dream.
Adam Greenfield, an urban-design professor at University College, London, is perhaps the most vocal skeptic of the smart-city gospel, which he regards as a dangerous gobbledygook of capitalist logical positivism. "It's as if someone took Minority Report as a shopping catalogue or a punch list rather than a vision of dystopia," he writes in his pamphlet Against the Smart City. Greenfield is hardly gentler in his assessment of New York's project: "LinkNYC is insulting crap," he told the Voice.
Greenfield's disdain is swamped by the tech-fueled boosterism that drives the smart-city movement and its media cheerleaders. And the movement finds a perfect champion in Doctoroff, who spent his time in city government positioning himself as the technocratic urbanist par excellence, shepherding the visionary will of developers through the thorny maze of government bureaucracy. And at Sidewalk Labs, Doctoroff's expertise in public-private facilitation has been married to a patron worthy of his ambition. "Alphabet/Google may be the single most ambitious company that has ever existed," Doctoroff told his fans at the Yale Club. "You have to go back to, like, the seventeenth century, or maybe before that, with the Dutch East India Company, that actually had the power to wage war."
Sidewalk Labs and LinkNYC declined, through their PR firm, to make Doctoroff or anyone else from their companies available for an interview. But a CityBridge spokesperson told the Voice that the consortium will spend roughly $300 million building and installing the LinkNYC kiosks and laying the fiber for the city's network. That may sound expensive, but Doctoroff made clear to Lessin that he still expects to "make a lot of money from this."
Larry Page recently weighed in on Sidewalk Labs, writing that it is "very different from Google's core business." It's actually very much the same; as Doctoroff explained at the Yale Club, LinkNYC makes money the same way Google does — collecting people's information and using it to sell ads: "By having access to the browsing activity of people using the Wi-Fi — all anonymized and aggregated — we can actually then target ads to people in proximity and then obviously over time track them through lots of different things, like beacons and location services, as well as their browsing activity. So in effect what we're doing is replicating the digital experience in physical space."
It's worth noting that Google's earlier forays into physical space aren't particularly reassuring. From 2008 to 2010 the company sent cars bristling with cameras all over the world to create Google Street View; it was later revealed that the cars were also equipped with Wi-Fi-sniffers, which sucked data from any open Wi-Fi signals they happened to pass and then stored that data at an Oregon facility. When Google was busted, it tried to pass the snooping off as an honest mistake, but an FCC report later determined not only that Google engineers had expressly wanted to collect that data, but that project leaders were well aware of what was going on. In 2013 the company ended up paying $7 million to settle lawsuits from 38 states' attorneys general over the episode. That figure was dwarfed by a settlement from the year before, when Google paid out $22.5 million over the revelation from Wall Street Journal reporters that the company was using a coding trick to get around the anti-tracking protections built into iPhones. In Europe over recent years, Google has been accused by regulators of everything from monopolistic behavior to repeated violation of EU privacy policies. With all that in mind, it's perhaps understandable that Google and its partners are eager to reassure the public that LinkNYC is not some sort of monstrous surveillance machine.
But the thing about storing anonymized information is that it often isn't so hard to de-anonymize it. How many people share your digital signature, running a given app on a given type of phone with a given version of an operating system? How many of those people's phones are always pinging out the name of your home Wi-Fi network? How many of those people's phones commute to your office every day? "In study after study after study, aggregation techniques that we thought were really robust turn out to be really weak," says Paul Ohm, a Georgetown Law professor who focuses on internet privacy. "This has been happening for seven years, and there's a dozen of these studies every year. It's a really risky business to promise anonymization and aggregation at this moment in time."
What's more, LinkNYC's privacy statement isn't worth as much as you might think. "This privacy statement is like most privacy statements," says Eben Moglen, a professor at Columbia Law School who works on internet privacy. "Its job is to make you believe that something is being promised, when actually it lets them do anything they want."
City watchdogs see privacy concerns as well. In 2014, when the CityBridge proposal was considered at a meeting of the city's Franchise and Concession Review Committee, a representative of Public Advocate Letitia James urged that the proposal be rejected, questioning whether the city was creating a dangerous and illegal monopoly with inadequate protection of users' civil liberties. The committee approved the contract anyway, but James still has concerns. "In this era of Big Data, both corporations and our governments have a greater responsibility to protect the privacy of all New Yorkers," James said in a statement to the Voice. "We need greater clarity about the franchise agreement."
Google may be the great white shark in the sea of user data, but it's not the only creature chewing up data and metabolizing it into ad revenue. Clinging like a remora to the LinkNYC project is Gimbal, a company that makes little chips called Bluetooth beacons. Though not yet activated, a Gimbal beacon sits dormant inside each LinkNYC kiosk. Why are they there? "From a user perspective, there isn't really added functionality to having Bluetooth on top of Wi-Fi," says Surya Mattu, a journalist, engineer, and fellow at the Data and Society Institute who studies wireless technology. "They're just different radio frequencies. It seems like a way to capture more people's information."
Gimbal manufactures the beacons, but its real business is supplying the systems that ride on top of them. In convention centers and stadiums, Gimbal systems push event-specific information and notices to attendees. In retail stores, Gimbal systems notify shoppers of nearby bargains. It's a handy technology, but its real application to advertisers is in "location-based mobile advertising," pushing ads to people's devices as they move around the city. In October of 2014, BuzzFeed broke the story that, unbeknownst to New Yorkers, the company that had the concession to run advertising on the battered remains of the city's public phone booths had quietly installed hundreds of Gimbal beacons in them. The advertising company was Titan, one of the original partners in CityBridge that has since been swallowed up by Sidewalk Labs. Busted, Titan and Gimbal complied with a city request to immediately remove the chips. The dream of getting beacons into the city's sidewalk furniture would have to be deferred to another day.
In its corner of the location-information market, Gimbal acts as a middleman, introducing partners who might want to share resources. An app publisher like Shazam boasts well over 100 million active monthly users, all of whom have consented (when they swiped past the terms-of-service page) to share their location with the company at all times, and to share that data (aggregated and anonymized, of course) with any of Shazam's partners. Pair that reach with a company or set of companies with networks of beacons, and you can start to get some fairly detailed information about people's movements. Are you an advertiser who wants to know how many Shazam users have passed by an advertising kiosk? Gimbal can make an introduction, and maybe, for a price, Shazam will cut you in on that information.
Most Shazam users probably didn't think, when they agreed to the terms of service, that they were saying yes to anything more than using a cool app that would let them identify the songs they hear. They almost certainly didn't clock that they'd just agreed to let a whole other set of companies log their location with beacon networks in order to bombard them with advertisements from yet another set of companies. It's a marketplace that's largely outside of public awareness, thriving precisely because most people don't know it exists.
Earlier this year, when the Voice's business department was considering whether Bluetooth beacons could help it keep track of the paper's red sidewalk distribution boxes, the conversation with Gimbal got weird very quickly. Gimbal told the Voice it was prepared to offer a substantial discount if the paper allowed it to share information from the beacons with third-party apps and brands. "We will lose money on this deal (from a data storage and hardware perspective)," Arjun Reddy, Gimbal's head of publisher development, wrote in an email. "The only way I can justify it to our CRO/CEO is if we are allowed to sell campaigns against your beacons. An example would be Shazam doing a campaign with Miller-Coors that triggers a NYC-based experience for Shazam users walking by your beacons. To clarify, no one will know that these are your beacons or that they are triggered by beacons in your boxes. There will be zero tie-back to the Village Voice brand whatsoever."
The shadiness of that last promise made the Voice's business representative uneasy. Wouldn't using the boxes to push ads to unsuspecting passersby violate the city ordinance forbidding the use of the boxes as a platform for advertising? "I believe we can work within/around this restriction," Clay Elliot, Gimbal's director of enterprise sales, assured the Voice. This deal was starting to smell wrong. A huge discount to surreptitiously use Voice property to push location-specific ads to passing New Yorkers? Maybe there was a story here. The business team walked it down the hall to the editorial staff.
Gimbal and its network of data-sharing partners are small-time compared to the really big players like Facebook and Google. But their existence speaks to the increasing commercial value placed on knowing not just how you behave online, but where you go and what you do in real life. "We're talking about a level of surveillance that used to be so expensive that it was really just nation-states doing it," says the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Tien. "Now it's something that any company can do to anyone."
Gimbal's beacons won't be going into Village Voice distribution boxes. But they are built into the LinkNYC kiosks. A spokesperson for CityBridge said that if and when the beacons are activated, they will create new revenue opportunities for the project.
Last fall, Facebook, Google's chief rival in the quest to own everyone's personal data, unveiled Internet.org, a proposal to provide thousands of isolated villages in India with internet access. Mark Zuckerberg was initially showered with plaudits for his selfless effort to bridge the global digital divide, but as details emerged, reaction to the plan soured. Internet.org would only provide free access to certain sites (among them Facebook), tossing the principle of net neutrality out the window. Perhaps even more importantly, the service routed all user traffic through Facebook's servers and disabled the HTTPS protocol that provides Web surfers protection from surveillance of their traffic. In effect, Facebook was offering a hobbled free service as the bait for a potentially massive haul of user data. As the outrage over the plan crested, Indian regulators ultimately rejected it.
LinkNYC represents a sort of first-world analogue for Facebook's doomed India plan, says Moglen, the Columbia Law professor. "Mr. Zuckerberg failed with Internet.org in India because we were able to show that it broke the net," Moglen says. "The better way to go, as Google sees it with respect to its long-term competition with Facebook, is to bury yourself deeper in the wire. Once you can show the regulators that something is a poor internet for poor people, it becomes easy for the regulators to see why it is not a good national strategy. But in the developed world, you have a rich net for rich people, which gives them the impression you're just a clear glass window through which they can see each other. That transparency, or pseudo-transparency, makes you forget that the network in between is untrustworthy. It isn't pure flat glass — it's a magnifying lens aimed at you."
The ability to target people based on their location is prompting a gold rush for advertisers. "The medium has the reach and scale that brands are looking for," according to one 2014 industry report, Why Location Is the New Currency of Marketing. "And unlike television, it can't be switched off or Tivo-ed." What brands are looking for, though, is not the same thing as what people are looking for. Targeted advertising of the sort that underwrites LinkNYC isn't about getting consumers information about goods and services they want, says Rushkoff, the media theorist. Rather, data collection is about producing profiles of consumers likely to engage in a particular form of consumer behavior, and then bombarding them with ads or search results or tailored Facebook feeds to tip them over into that behavior. "They are working hard to get you to behave true to your statistical profile," Rushkoff says, "and in doing so they reduce your spontaneity, your anomalous behavior, your human agency, as they try to get you to conform to the most marketable probable outcome. When we're doing that en masse, to an entire city — that kind of long-term manipulation is just astounding."
This isn't the Stasi bugging our phones for the state, though — it's the market, finding ever more frictionless ways to induce us into behaving how the advertisers want us to. "The importance of the commercial motive is that it provides a thin justification, so people can convince themselves this is not really very malign," says Moglen. "They're just trying to make money by advertising to me things I want! And these friendly kiosks on the street, we're supposed to think of them as just wonderful curvy street furniture that improve our world. They're not social control; they're not tools for studying and interrogating human behavior. It's a smart city! Don't you love being a smart young person living in a smart city? But there's more to it than you can see above the waterline. It's such a simple, cool design, you're not supposed to notice there's a back end, or who has it."
In some sense, it's good news that New York's franchisees aren't shady unknown quantities. Using LinkNYC isn't like walking into a dodgy internet café that doesn't run anti-virus software. Google, Qualcomm — these are established names. "With really smart companies, I feel a lot better about their ability to do this well," says Georgetown's Ohm. "But that confidence is undercut if they have a business model that continuously gives them a reason not to do such a good job aggregating. The more private they make your information, the less money they're going to make off your information. Which of those two competing things do you think is going to win the day?"
That a bunch of public, for-profit companies will do all they can to make money isn't all that shocking. More troublesome is the role of the city government in granting CityBridge its franchise without assuring greater protection for the citizens of New York. As Doctoroff stressed at the Yale Club when discussing his project to bless New Yorkers with the physical-space equivalent of internet ads, "This is a complete partnership with New York City."
The last time the city government entered a "complete partnership" with a corporation to trade its citizens' privacy for cash, at least the city got a better piece of the action. Under Mayor Bloomberg, New York worked with Microsoft to build the Domain Awareness System, a collection of some six thousand cameras, hundreds of license plate readers, and other sensors, all tightly networked to an NYPD command center. In that case, though, the city negotiated for a 30 percent cut of Microsoft's future sales of the D.A.S. to other cities. With LinkNYC, when Sidewalk Labs sells the model elsewhere, as Doctoroff has said he intends to do, the city won't see a cent.
It wasn't so long ago that when New York wanted to build something important for its citizens, it did so itself, or formed a public authority to do so, but nowadays the fashion is to contract out for expertise on complicated projects. "It's hard to fault New York for saying, 'We know what we're good at and we know what we're not good at' and making the decision to outsource this," Ohm says. "But on the other hand, we're talking about extremely valuable real estate that New York possesses here. They have a ton of leverage to negotiate really, really good terms, and I would have hoped that privacy would be one of the things they were negotiating about."
Rushkoff, characteristically, is less diplomatic. "What we have here is our public officials serving up the public to corporations," he says. "It's like New York doesn't realize that it has the power of place against these extractive corporations. The city is looking at its population not as a power base, but as an offering, as the thing to sell."
Without rigorous government protections, individual users are left vulnerable. A senior executive specializing in cybersecurity and privacy at a major international corporation told the Voice that when it comes to protecting user data, the United States falls far behind other developed nations. "If we care about the privacy of our citizens, we should be tightening our privacy protections to be more like countries in the EU and Israel," she said. "Information like my political party is protected overseas; it isn't here. My choice of a male or female life partner, or both, that's protected overseas; it isn't here. My involvement in a union is private information overseas; it isn't over here. It can be taken at will." As a result, the security executive said, she's extremely cautious with her digital interactions. "I have very few apps on my phone," she says. "When I walk down the street, I have wireless service turned off because there's so much information that can be leaking out of your phone that way. Most people don't understand that when they have Wi-Fi turned on, they're announcing their location to the entire city. I have a problem with that."
This freedom to opt out entirely is also the last argument that spokespeople for LinkNYC and the city itself fall back upon when challenged with privacy concerns: If you don't like it, you're welcome not to use it. It's a disheartening place to land, especially when discussing infrastructure that's supposed to be serving people who aren't served otherwise. To Moglen, it's simply an unacceptable conclusion. "That's what they want us to believe, that we have a choice between isolation and monitored connecting," he says. "Those are not adequate choices in a 21st-century world: We are designing the net to track you — if you don't like it, don't use it. The human race is shifting to a fully surveilled and monitored superorganism — if you don't like that, stop being human. That's a poor outcome. The United States is a society that was based around the idea that human beings can have liberty. So give us liberty! And don't tell us that otherwise we can have the death of the net."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.