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The tremendous ambitions behind New York City’s free WiFi

( <a href="">EHB_1777 / Flickr</a> )

At this very moment in New York City, you can walk up to one of 65 futuristic kiosks, punch in an email address on your phone and instantly receive a wireless Internet connection that follows you around town. It's free — and it's fast. Each kiosk, which is really an old payphone that's been converted into an Internet terminal, is connected to gigabit fiber optics. It's like having Verizon FiOS on every street corner, pumping out WiFi.

Free, city-wide WiFi has been an elusive dream for many urbanists. But if any city were to figure it out at scale, it would probably be New York. Early signs suggest the experiment, known as LinkNYC, is gaining traction: New Yorkers and visitors are signing up for the small-scale WiFi feature at a pace of several thousand people a week, according to Intersection, one of the handful of companies behind the project. During one week of especially notable growth, 5,000 people registered for the service.

In a city of more than 8 million, that might not sound like much. But the WiFi kiosks, known individually as Links, offer a proof-of-concept for a wider planned network of some 7,500 hotspots across the city. Imagine if you switched them all on at once.

This public connectivity could someday wind up supplementing — if not replacing — some New Yorkers' existing Internet subscriptions, said Intersection's chief innovation officer, Colin O'Donnell. Instead of browsing the Web through your home WiFi or 4G LTE, just pop onto the nearest Link's WiFi signal.

"You could put 20 bucks back in your pocket" in mobile data savings that way, said O'Donnell. "If you did that for 20 percent of New Yorkers, that's like, a quarter-billion dollars a year you're putting back in people's pockets."

If that sounds ambitious, you should hear O'Donnell sketch out the broader vision for LinkNYC, which New York officially unveiled in February along with Qualcomm and CIVIQ Smartscapes. (An notable investor in the project is Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Alphabet, the company that owns Google.)

LinkNYC wants to be more than just a way for people to get on the Internet. It's to become a platform for innovation, ushering New York into the next chapter of urban development where mayors can begin to understand more intimately how their city functions. Flows of people, commercial activity, garbage services — all those things that are seemingly handed to you in a game of SimCity — turn out to be really hard to visualize in real life. LinkNYC's thousands of kiosks aim to change that, allowing officials to study the ebb and flow of the city's rhythm in real time.

"We'll be doing developer days, making APIs," he said. "We're working with the Department of Energy, thinking about sensors we can deploy, thinking about how we can [study] anything from the speed of traffic to, I don't know, air pollution or noise pollution."

O'Donnell thinks LinkNYC will give policymakers an endlessly customizable laboratory for experimentation — a digital stethoscope pressed to New York's living, beating heart. Understanding how New Yorkers behave could highlight pain points in their existence, paving the way for policy changes that ease congestion, add new services or drive business development. You can expect the kiosks to start telling you there's a table for two open at the French bistro down the street, for instance. Or that the subway station nearest you is offering limited service due to repairs. Or that your nearest polling place is two blocks to the east on election day.

Some of this information will likely be shown on the Links themselves; there are two 55-inch displays on either side of each unit. Some, such as the transit alerts, could be pushed to your mobile device.

As large-scale, data-driven decision-making goes mainstream, though, it's impossible to ignore the privacy implications of what will essentially be a listening post on every other city block. There's a risk those hotspots could be turned against the very people they were built to serve, civil liberties advocates warn, especially if they've been built from the start to be able to gather all kinds of information we haven't dreamt of yet.

"The sheer volume of information gathered by this powerful network will create a massive database of information that will present attractive opportunities for hackers," the New York Civil Liberties Union wrote in a blog post last month. Even seemingly innocuous metadata about your activity, experts say, can be unintentionally revealing.

The prospect of a city-wide surveillance network is literally the stuff of science fiction. A recent video game, "Watch Dogs," even turns the player into a vigilante hacker who can eavesdrop on Chicago residents just by tapping into the single operating system that controls everything from the city's traffic cameras to its water pressure.

Intersection believes it's meaningfully limited that risk. While LinkNYC may store the email address you enter to gain access to the WiFi, even that can be faked by privacy-conscious users; there's no check to verify that you actually own the account you've entered. You could, in other words, give the service a throwaway address to protect yourself. And once you're online, the service doesn't track anything else, according to LinkNYC general manager Jen Hensley.

"LinkNYC does not collect or store any data on users’ personal web browsing on their own devices," said Hensley. (It does appear, though, that LinkNYC is interested in what applications you use on the tablets that are built into each kiosk; O'Donnell says one of the most common things people like to do is fire up YouTube to test the speed of the network.)

Data collection has become a key ingredient in many companies' online business models; from Google to Facebook, it's personal data that helps these firms sell highly valuable ads that target specific slices of Internet users.

So if LinkNYC doesn't collect any of your data, how does it plan to make any money?

Privacy researchers say one possible tactic would be to cross-reference the email addresses it gets with data that's already available on the open market. This approach, which the industry calls "data append," essentially marries a private database to a public one. By buying access to consumer information from a data broker such as Experian, LinkNYC would be able to form general insights on its audience without technically sharing what it's got on you.

Although ads will appear on the Links themselves, LinkNYC will never require users to view advertising on their own devices in order to use the free WiFi feature, said Dave Etherington, Intersection's chief strategy officer.

"It's completely ad-free," he said, "which we're really excited about, because we want it to be something people fall in love with and use constantly."

So far, large incumbent Internet providers have mostly ignored the project. It's no Google Fiber. But if it takes off — and the sign-up rate so far suggests it might — LinkNYC's free WiFi could dramatically change how New Yorkers access the Web.

"I think we're an anomaly and people don't know what to make of us," said O'Donnell. "And they don't realize what a big impact it's going to have."