In case you haven’t yet noticed, Google is now on street corners all over New York City, which is not only home to millions of New Yorkers, but is also one of the most international of cities, hosting tourists and business people from all over the world, what to speak of UN delegates and their families and UN Missions and consulates and visiting politicos. Pay attention.
Not too long ago, a consortium called CityBridge started wiring New York with wi-fi kiosks, many of which are replacing public phones. Everyone loves ubiquitous free wi-fi, but if there’s one thing that we’ve learned about the tech industry, it’s that free is never free: that if you’re not the (paying) customer, you’re the product. “If all goes according to the plan, the kiosks will be as commonplace as pay phones once were,” says The New York Times (New Yorkers Greet the Arrival of Wi-Fi Kiosks With Panic, Skepticism and Relief), “…Once a smartphone is registered, it will automatically connect to the Wi-Fi signals that radiate from the kiosks and extend 100 feet or more.”
Which means that you’ll be tracked all over town.
The name of the project is LinkNYC, but the real question is: LinkNYC to what? Or to whom?
Of course, CityBridge is Google, by any other name. Or rather, Alphabet, which is Google by any other name, or as the Village Voice explained it best: “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.”
Not that Alphabet was part of Google’s plan to somewhat legitimately create shell companies or muddy the waters of legality, mind you.
“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…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.”
If you think you have precious few nodes of privacy now, just wait. As the Village Voice warns, Google Is Transforming NYC’s Payphones Into a ‘Personalized Propaganda Engine’. Propaganda and control engine, to be more precise. And New York is just one city in their plan.
Not that there was any public debate or discussion over a plan that’s this invasive, what to speak of ubiquitous. Lest we forget about Google’s other forays into the public space, as the Voice reminds us: “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.”
There is a privacy statement when signing onto the wi-fi, which more or less informs you that you have the right to absolutely no privacy. In typical Google fashion, all your base are belong to us, and city officials seem just fine with that.
Bottom line: The project, in effect, means total control of virtually every street corner in NYC, which would be mapped, and monitored by Google, as well as to all of your personal information and data. Lest we forget, Google has been repeatedly fined for violating privacy standards in the United States and Europe. And gets away with what amounts to mere slaps on the wrist, given the amount of money – and information – that they amass in the interim: discovery and lawsuits take time. Tech has always been rather fond of its ‘ask forgiveness, not permission’ mantra, which seemed to be fine when it was more an emerging industry that was struggling to establish itself. Now that tech potentially wields a level of power and control that the world has never seen or experienced before, we’ve gone way beyond the point where a slap on the wrist will suffice and when it comes to Google collecting our information in the real world, forget the slap on the wrist: best to cut it off at the knees, if the idea is to go onward and forward.