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February 16, 2016

The Technology of Yesteryear gets a Makeover

Do you like riddles?

Here’s a good one: What’s 9.5 feet tall, 20 times faster than the average home Internet connection, and soon to be all over New York City’s five boroughs?

The answer is LinkNYC, a 12-year initiative partnered by the City of New York and NYC-based tech consortium CityBridge. The first of 7,500 high speed, gigabit Wi-Fi kiosks (replacing pay phones) was unveiled last month.

The payphone has turned into a relic, a reminder of a once-critical tool of communication. For New York City, that’s changing. Financed by digital display ads, these kiosks go far beyond free Wi-Fi. Each one will be equipped with USB outlets for charging devices, city maps, 911 emergency access, a built-in Android tablet that allows users to browse the web, and Skype enabled video calls to anywhere in the country. Currently in beta, these Wi-Fi kiosks have a guaranteed radius of 150 feet, but, can extend to nearly 400 feet, and are reportedly 10 times faster than the city’s current public Internet speeds. Meaning, in the not too distant future, anyone will be able to gain access to high speed internet virtually anywhere for free.

In a hyper connected, always on world, this could very well revolutionize the way people interact with public spaces. But, with innovation comes many risks, specifically surrounding user privacy and cyber security. Just how high (or low) of a risk does this new project pose? Let’s take a look at the potentially good, bad and pretty awesome scenarios.

The Good (benefits)

Over the next 12 years, the city estimates the new kiosks will generate more than $500 million in ad revenue alone. Not only will the project create new service jobs, but it will also attract freelancers, small businesses and tech startups ready to further advance the project. In addition to providing a boost to New York City’s economy, LinkNYC will help bridge the digital divide by making high-speed internet available to residents who currently have little to no access to innovative digital services.

Travelers from around the world visiting the Big Apple can also benefit. Those who have data plans that don’t work in the United States, or are extremely costly, will have the ability to connect to the Internet without having to stay in one place (coffee shops, book stores, etc.). This will also increase competition for local businesses offering Wi-Fi to customers. More competition equals more consumer choice, which is always a positive.

The Bad (major concerns)

A key concern surrounding LinkNYC is online security. How safe is public Wi-Fi? More importantly, how much will people trust the safety of this public network in a time where malware and data breaches are weekly headlines? The $200 million investment could hit a roadblock if the designers do not publically address these concerns. Which is why the success of this project weighs heavily on CityBridge to implement proactive strategies to combat future attacks. Even in some of the worst case scenarios, if an attacker plants malware onto the network, it could potentially spread an infection to any device connected to it. The built-in tablets could also be used to steal private information such as user logins, banking and credit card information.

CityBridge claims LinkNYC is supported by a highly-secure, 2.0 encryption technology that will have a series of filters and proxies designed to block anyone who tries to download malware during a session. There is also a team monitoring traffic, if they find a user receiving data from a command-and-control server the session will be ended immediately. In fact, after 15 seconds of inactivity, the kiosks reset to wipe away everything that isn’t pre-installed by the company. On the other hand, in the case of “spoofing” attacks – where an attacker renames their personal Wi-Fi network to match New York City’s to deceive users into connecting to an insecure network – there’s not much LinkNYC can do to prevent it. LinkNYC does offer users a private network to avoid such attacks. For now, it would be wise for users to approach these kiosks with caution, as they would any other public Wi-Fi network.

It may be too early to predict, but, local businesses like Starbucks, Barnes & Nobles, or Panera Bread could see a dip in visits due to the accessibility and range of faster Wi-Fi outside of their doors. Beyond local businesses, telecom companies could also take a hit if people begin to pass up phone service contracts and opt for free Wi-Fi signal to support their phone connections.

The “Pretty Awesome” (innovative possibilities)

According to a recent article in Inc. Magazine, the kiosks offer multiple commercial possibilities such as opportunities to place sensors on the kiosks to measure air quality, rain or wind pressure; or to keep track of city details like car and foot traffic patterns. The kiosks could also be used to access information about nearby businesses and other local services.

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As technology advances, the demand for access and constant connectivity will continue to rise. Repurposing old technology to meet that demand is the next step. However, it is just as important for innovators to anticipate the actions of cyber attackers and implement proactive strategies to combat future attacks. Change is scary, but, society can no longer afford to limit innovation nor wait for a crisis to erupt in order to implement safe guards for users. Although there are still many questions surrounding this new project, LinkNYC has the potential to drive economic growth in the Big Apple and better equip residents with the tools needed to be thrive in today’s digital world.

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