Councillors should scrutinise plans to introduce phonebox replacements with potentially worrying surveillance capabilities, writes Adrian Short.
Illustrations: Ross Atkin
hiddenPhoneboxes used to be simple things. You paid your money and made a call. The box itself might have been one of the much-loved old red ones designed by Giles Gilbert Scott, some of which are now protected as listed buildings.
But the plans to replace many of the old BT phoneboxes are something different entirely, which raises concerns that the ultimate aim is to install a privatised urban surveillance system by stealth.
Bristol City Council will shortly be deciding on 25 planning applications for new street kiosks to replace old BT phoneboxes. Branded as BT InLinkUK, but operated by a company with links to Google, the kiosks offer free phone calls and free wifi funded by two large digital advertising screens on the front and back.
As users sign into the free wifi and they accept terms and conditions, their personal data is collected, including the unique identifier for their wireless device, which means that technology could be installed in future to track people’s movements.
New York has already got more than 1,000 of the same kiosks with up to 7,500 planned. London has got more than 100. Leeds has got 13. And if Google gets its way, Bristol will soon have 25. The company aims to install over 1,000 InLink kiosks across the UK.
Taken at face value, the project seems both useful and relatively uncontroversial. Whether we’re likely to use it or not, no-one’s going to object to having access to free phone calls and wifi when we’re out and about. But as with free services online, we’ll pay for it in other ways.
The lead company behind the project is Intersection, which is owned by a group of investors led by Sidewalk Labs, a company wholly owned by Google’s parent Alphabet. Sidewalk Labs is Google’s attempt to bring the technology and business model of the internet to our city streets.
As New York magazine puts it, referring to the phone kiosk project in New York which is identical to InLink UK: “LinkNYC is just the beginning of Google’s master plan for a Googletopia, wired up with sensors, awash with data, and populated by driverless cars. (It ought not to be surprising, but the monoliths have cameras looking back at us.)”
So what kind of Googletopia does the company have planned for Bristolians? Beyond the headline features of free phone calls and wifi and the screens, there are the three CCTV cameras installed in each kiosk. For unknown reasons they aren’t mentioned in the company’s planning documents.
But the kiosks are also designed to be a flexible platform to install any kind of networked sensor to hoover up data from the street.
The company’s product statement (page 18) says: “We are anticipating introducing sensors that can anonymously monitor things like: air quality monitoring (currently being trialed), pedestrian movement, traffic movement, bike and vehicle counting, and environmental factors like sound and light.”
So the company plans to use the network of kiosks to track people and vehicles as they move around Bristol. Potentially this could extend to the rest of the UK and even the US cities that run the same system.
A fair exchange?
We might be reassured that the plans are to do this “anonymously” but that is practically impossible. The most common method for this kind of tracking uses people’s wifi signals to track the movement of phones, but this can’t be done without generating unique movement trails for every person.
When Transport for London (TfL) trialled a similar system on the Tube in 2016, their promises of “de-personalised” data collection fell apart when someone made a Freedom of Information Act request for the data. TfL decided that releasing it would be likely to breach people’s privacy.
There are also concerns around advertising. AdBlock Bristol have objected to the plans to flood the city with more screens, saying: “People in Bristol are increasingly concerned about the ongoing commercialisation of our public spaces, particularly through digital advertising.
“The council should be listening to those concerns, not blindly allowing dozens more digital advertising screens into our city.”
Bristol needs to decide whether a proliferation of advertising screens and enabling companies like Google to track people and vehicles around the city is a price worth paying for free phone calls and wifi.
But Bristolians won’t get that chance because there is no high-level process for making that decision or blocking the system if residents don’t want it. The process we have is simply to decide 25 minor planning applications, something normally so low-level that it doesn’t even get referred to the city’s councillors.
I’ve been working with AdBlock and the design technologist Ross Atkin to persuade councillors to take responsibility for the InLink system by making these decisions themselves rather than delegating to planning officers.
Councillors should be looking at the overall effect of the network not just the individual kiosks. If the applications are approved, we want the council to ensure that no new sensors are installed or surveillance carried out without obtaining further planning permission.
No city should grant anyone blanket permission to run a surveillance system on their streets, which is exactly what the InLink is asking for.
*InLink said that all of the cameras within an InLink are switched off, which would only change after consultation with local communities. They added that their services are compliant with UK data rules and regulations, and that only users’ email addresses would be collected, which would not be sold to third parties.