On the surface, the LinkNYC service sounds pretty amazing: it replaces payphones with free wireless service for your device, has USB charging stations, permits you to make free VoIP calls, and works as a kiosk where you can sign in to obtain the information you want. But, as The Village Voice warns, nothing that is free truly is: the service is paid through advertising and Google will be "monetizing the data hard." Not everyone is impressed.
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.
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