InLinkUK - targeted advertising, planning permission and public space

Richard Pope,

Our local high street is going to have one of its phoneboxes replaced with an 'InLink'.

InLink is a public wifi network provided by BT through on-pavement 'structures' and funded through advertising displayed on a big screen on the side of them.

They have some additional functions, like making a free phone call or looking up local information, but given smartphones are a thing most people now have, advertising and wifi are the main play here.

According to the FAQs advertising will be targeted based on data about how people use the InLinks:

We may use anonymized Technical Information to ... Deliver relevant advertising on the Structures

That will presumably include some tracking of individual devices:

we collect your email address, your device unique identifier (MAC address), and your device type during the registration process. We collect this information to help us operate and provide services to you.

In the same way as other ISP's anyone using the service will have the websites they visit logged:

In order to comply with laws and regulations, we must capture this information. We will only share this information in response to a lawful request or legal process, including from government and public authorities.

What is less clear is if this data will be used to tailor what adverts get displayed on specific InLinks.

There are also three cameras, which will be disabled at launch:

There are two security cameras above the ad displays as well as one built into the tablet. All three cameras are turned off at the moment and will not be activated without express notice to the public.

In New York, where there is a large deployment of InLinks, cameras are used for security and "to improve Services".

Given attempts by similar services to use cameras to guess people's age and gender and to use that to target adverts at people, it's reasonable to question what those cameras could be used for in the future.

Now, better public wifi is much needed, and it's great to see investment in it. But there are three questions that InLink raises for me:

  1. As a society we have not yet dealt with the implications of targeted advertising online. Are our institutions ready to facilitate a healthy debate about what inviting targeted advertising into our public spaces will mean?
  2. Is provision via a private company and funded by advertising the only model for doing this? Given there is a strong argument to be made that wifi is important infrastructure, shouldn't we at least have the conversation about treating it in the same way as we do the London transport system - directed by and accountable to the city government?
  3. Each InLink will require planning permission, but given the very essence of the thing can be changed remotely at a later date (the cameras can be enabled/disabled, how targeted the adverts are can change), is the UK planning system really set up to deal with digital-physical infrastructure like this?