As cities look too bolster their smart credentials, connectivity is of high priority for urbanism advocates across the world. Free public WiFi is often the first step to increasing internet accessibility for urbanites, and while the privacy concerns that are naturally instigated by unsecured internet and data gleaned from the devices and people that connect to them, it’s not just cyber-crime and Big Brother that threatens city-dwellers, but real life physical crime is being increasingly reported around public WiFi hotspots.
In March 2016, New York City began rolling out LinkNYC kiosks, replacing outdated phone booths, starting in the Upper East Side. An ambitious plan to replace all payphones with multifunctional fixtures that emit WiFi, allow users to charge their devices via USB slots and make free phone calls, including emergency 911 calls, the LinkNYC project “is a first-of-its-kind communications network that will bring the fastest available free public WiFi to millions of New Yorkers, small businesses, and visitors. Built at no cost to taxpayers, the five-borough LinkNYC network will, through advertising proceeds, generate more than $500 million in revenue for the City over the initiative’s first 12 years,” according to NYC.gov. At least 40 have been rolled out to date, part of larger network of 4,550, slated for completion by the summer of 2019. While the free WiFi and mobile charging capabilities have certainly helped out New Yorkers in a squeeze, residents have begun to complain of criminal activity facilitated by these very same kiosks. “Valerie Mason, the president of the East 72nd Street Neighborhood Association, said she saw drug deals happen in front of two kiosks in her neighborhood on the Fourth of July. The dealers were makings phone calls and handing over plastic baggies, she said,” writes the localized New York edition of DNAinfo.com. “Why would you want somebody to have unlimited access like that to create a crime scene in the middle of Manhattan?” asks the community leader.
The phenomenon isn’t an American one. Earlier this year, South Africa’s Rekord reported growing reports of robberies and muggings of teenagers and young women who hang out around free WiFi hotspots. Knowing that the hotspots attracts owners of valuable devices, from laptops to mobile phones, criminals gravitate to public internet facilities. “Criminals are targeting young children and women because they are the most vulnerable in our society. We are trying our best to fight this problem and inform people not to display their cellphones,” says Warrant Officer George Khoza, overall commander for all police sectors in Sunnyside, East Pretoria. “In some cases, we have had women who were offered lifts by complete strangers who then drove off with their luggage. We have also had cases of people pretending to be fortune tellers and then run off with their so-called client’s belonging.” Elsewhere in South Africa, in the township of Mabopane, Tshwane, police forces have similarly recorded a rise in robberies around WiFi hotspots. “We want to alert people who are using Wi-Fi to access internet at the schools and library to be careful of the criminals because they are robbing them, especially from 14:00 and into the evening,” says Constable Petunia Chabangu.
Meanwhile, the US State Department’s Overseas Security Advisory Council’s 2015 Crime and Safety Report on Guatemala echoes the same patterns of criminal activity around WiFi hotspots. “Visitors should avoid using a laptop in a public place. Areas that offer WiFi computer services have been targeted. Several individuals have been killed and their laptops taken upon departure from these establishments after they were seen using their computers in public,” reads the report. In the Philippines, Manila police preempted concerns of increased robberies and muggings when they announced a plan to install free WiFi routers at bus stops across the city, by also announcing the installation of security cameras at every location. “We are also planning to increase police visibility in the area,” explained Manila City Council IT Division Head Don Quintos, when the connectivity infrastructure began to roll out in 2013. Back in New York’s Upper East Side, residents are not only concerned about robbery and drug deals but the perceived abuse of public property – the LinkNYC kiosks are increasingly being used by homeless people as a sort of base camp, where they can be connected and power up their devices. According to DNAInfo.com, Valerie Mason, the president of the East 72nd Street Neighborhood Association also witnessed a man sleeping on the street will plugged in to a kiosk, while similar images have been captured and shared on social media.