Free WiFi all across New York City? It might sound like a dream to many New Yorkers, until the public learned that it wasn’t “free” at all. LinkNYC, a communications network that is replacing public pay phones with WiFi kiosks across New York City, is paid for by advertising that tracks users, festooned with cameras and microphones, and has questionable processes for allowing the public to influence its data handling policies.

These kiosks also gave birth to ReThink LinkNYC, a grassroots community group that’s uniting New Yorkers from different backgrounds in standing up for their privacy. In a recent interview with EFF, organizers Adsila Amani and Mari Dej described the organization as a “hodgepodge of New Yorkers” who were shocked by the surveillance-fueled WiFi kiosks entering their neighborhoods. More importantly, they saw opportunity. As Dej described, “As we began scratching the surface, [we] saw that this was an opportunity as well to highlight some of the problems that are largely invisible with data brokers and surveillance capitalism.”

ReThink LinkNYC, which has launched an informational website and hosts events across New York, has been pushing city officials for transparency and accountability. They have demanded a halt to construction on the kiosks until adequate privacy safeguards are enacted.

The group has already had some successes. As Dej described it, “We certainly got the attention of LinkNYC, and that itself is a victory – [they] know that there is an organized group of everyday peeps unhappy with the lack of transparency around the LinkNYC 'spy kiosks.’” 

But Amani cautioned that it was too early to know whether early changes in response to the group’s advocacy—including a revised LinkNYC privacy policy, the creation of a Chief Privacy Officer role for the city, and a new city taskforce—will actually advance the privacy concerns of New Yorkers. “We would like to see the end of individualized tracking of location, faces, and all biometric data on the kiosks,” Amani offered, “With LinkNYC having the means to collect this data and still not having figured out the path for community oversight of the hardware and software, it’s saying trust us, we won't hurt you. That's naive, especially in these times.”

ReThink LinkNYC has thrived in part because it actively cultivated partnerships, and not just with the tech community. Dej noted, “Inasmuch as the structure of surveillance affects us all, all of us deserve to be aware, and welcomed into action.  A movement needs to extend beyond the tech community.” 

To other groups around the country that might be interesting in campaigning to defend civil liberties in their own communities, Amani advised organizers to examine the power structures they are opposing and cultivate personal connections: “Civic involvement remains a more or less fringe activity for a majority of people.  So appeal to what human community is—feelings of connection, acceptance, creating a safe world for our children, and a chance to be creative, 'seen', and given a sense that one’s participation is valued. If we'd like our tech future to be cooperative (versus dominated by wealth or authoritarian styles), then that's how we organize.  If we dedicate ourselves to unlearning the hierarchical behavioral model, we can more easily sense our power.”

Dej agreed, adding “We have the power, we just have yet to realize it.” 

ReThink LinkNYC joined the Electronic Frontier Alliance (EFA) over a year ago, and has used the network to help connect with other digital rights activists in New York City, get assistance with event promotion, and discuss strategies. Dej shared that EFA has been useful for connecting with other activists, saying, “It helps us connect to other people and other parts of this issue that you wouldn’t think of right off the bat, like Cryptoparty, who gave us insight into the technology part of all this… It’s also good to see people working and that we’re not the only ones going through this struggle. There are other people fighting different parts of this system as hard as they can.” 

The Electronic Frontier Alliance was launched in March 2016 to help inspire and connect community and campus groups across the United States to defend digital rights. While each group is independent and has its own focus areas, every member group upholds five principles:

  1. Free expression: people should be able to speak their minds to whomever will listen.
  2. Security: technology should be trustworthy and answer to its users.
  3. Privacy: technology should allow private and anonymous speech, and allow users to set their own parameters about what to share with whom.
  4. Creativity: technology should promote progress by allowing people to build on the ideas, creations, and inventions of others.
  5. Access to knowledge: curiosity should be rewarded, not stifled.

To learn more about the Electronic Frontier Alliance, find groups in your area, or join the alliance, check out our website.  To learn more about ReThink LinkNYC, visit their website.

Interviews with ReThink LinkNYC were conducted by phone with follow up over email, and responses edited lightly for clarity.