BT InLink in London: building a privatised “smart city” by stealth

Adrian Short ·

The most important urban development in London is currently being built with little fanfare and even less scrutiny. It will create no office space, no homes, no shops and no leisure facilities yet it will change the shape of London for years to come. Sadiq Khan has nothing to say about it. Local councillors are supposedly powerless to stop it. Londoners haven’t been asked if they want it and even on a clear day it’s quite hard to tell exactly what it is. It’s less than three metres tall and it’s coming to a street near you right now.

BT’s network of InLink kiosks is planned to replace the majority of the capital’s phone boxes in the next few years. Over 50 are already installed and hundreds more are working their way through the planning process. The headline features of these silver monoliths are free wifi funded by digital advertising screens front and back. Add on to that free phone calls and texts, USB charging for your phone and a tablet screen where you can browse maps and the local council’s website. All this is provided without users or the public purse shelling out a penny.

Street advertising isn’t new. Nor is public wifi. What makes InLink unique is the scale of the planned network and the flexibility of the kiosks. InLink is about much more than helping Londoners get online and helping brands flog them stuff. It’s about building a citywide urban sensor network to monitor and respond to environmental conditions and human activity (what are you up to?) at a far finer grain than current systems. Will our privacy be protected? Will our lives be improved? Who will really be in control? We don’t really know, because the InLink network as a whole is getting no more scrutiny than, well, a bunch of phone boxes.

What’s in the box?

Many of us remember the era of beige box desktop computers. These bulky and usually ugly cases contained a cage where modular components could be easily slotted in and popped out. They were almost infinitely repairable and upgradable: If you needed more hard drive space you just put a new drive in. If you wanted a faster processor you took the old one out and put a new one in. Not just better stuff but whole new classes of gubbins could find a slot inside somewhere: TV cards, USB ports, wifi antennas.

The InLink kiosk is essentially a bigger, shinier version of the old desktop computer case cemented into the street. What’s inside the box tomorrow will be different from what’s in it today as new technology becomes available and as the InLink consortium attracts new partners. Software upgrades and algorithm changes back at InLink central (a company called Intersection, which is owned by Sidewalk Labs, which is owned by Alphabet Inc, the company formerly called Google) mean that significant new capabilities with their attendant concerns can be deployed at any time without even touching the box. And, of course, without the public being any the wiser let alone in control of what’s scooped up by the system from our own streets.

How do we regulate it?

This presents a unique challenge to the planning system that has never had to regulate something like this before. At its heart, planning is about regulating land use: both the structures built on the land and what they’re used for. Supermarkets sell food. People live in houses. Nightclubs mean music and dancing. If you want to knock something down or build something new you generally need to get planning permission from the local council. If you want to change the use of an existing building you’ll probably need permission too: Shops get turned into homes; pubs into fast food joints; churches into temples of Mammon. While planning policy and individual development decisions can often go into excruciating technical detail on traffic flows, light and noise levels or energy efficiency, at its heart the main issues contested are generally visible and understandable to everyone: Is the building too big or too small? Does it have too many car parking spaces or too few? Do we really want it open until 1AM or is midnight more than enough? Is it beautiful or ugly? And how is this going to fit in with what we’ve already got?

But how do you regulate an algorithm? How do you meaningfully approve a sensor like a camera, which at its simplest might just take a snapshot once an hour and throw it away the next day, but might also be streaming realtime high definition video back to a central data centre where face recognition, gait analysis and sophisticated threat detection analysis could lead to an official or unofficial response that might not easily be tracked back to a single kiosk or a specific point in time? Is this microphone for monitoring noise levels, recording people’s conversations or detecting gunfire? How do councils really understand what’s going on when the planning application in front of the council is for a single kiosk or dozens of single kiosks in separate minor applications, yet it’s the citywide system as a whole that really matters?

The defunct technology manufacturer Sun Microsystems used to have a slogan: The network is the computer. Likewise, InLink is all about the grid, not the individual kiosks sticking up through the pavement on this street or that like tips of the iceberg. And while every development has implications beyond the boundaries of its own site, nothing in London has ever had quite the same impact on how the city functions as a whole while having so very little to do with the specific sites where kiosks have landed.

Now imagine if a major development like Crossrail had been planned and approved not as a strategic project but metre by metre, with hundreds or thousands of minor planning applications filed with the local councils along the route. Looked at through a microscope, this bit of track, that tunnel and this junction doesn’t seem to do much harm nor be obviously useful. But no-one would plan a 73-mile railway like that. Formal planning for the Crossrail project took over seven years, with the final three taken with getting an act of parliament to approve the scheme as a whole.

In many ways, InLink is a copy-and-paste urban operating system derived from New York’s LinkNYC. While the UK’s traditional red phone box designed by Giles Gilbert Scott has become a design icon, our new kiosks are literally imported wholesale along with the whole support system of software and services. But unlike in London, LinkNYC was planned and agreed (not without controversy) as a citywide system by New York’s mayor rather than approved piecemeal at the neighbourhood level.

If you want to build a McDonalds in London you’d apply to the local council for planning permission. If you wanted to build 1,000 McDonalds across the city all at once you’d like to think the mayor might be in a position to take a view or take control. And if those McDonalds decided not just to serve food to their own customers but to monitor the diet of every Londoner and to push new meal ideas at us all constantly, quite a few of us would be wondering what exactly was going on and demanding answers.

Yet almost overnight, London is being given a military-grade street-level sensor network without high-level approval or any public debate. The free wifi is obviously attractive to many, although InLink in London appears to have none of the supposed high-minded ideals behind New York’s bid to bridge the digital divide by connecting up poorer people in less affluent neighbourhoods. Here it’s all about getting those screens in front of drivers and pedestrians with money. But while we might welcome the bandwidth and bemoan more intrusive advertising in public space, ultimately that all feels like an exercise in misdirection.

Contrary to what some people think, the free wifi isn’t a Trojan horse to get the advertising screens installed. The whole thing is just a way to get those silver networked boxes onto our streets and filled with whatever sensors and analytics our Googly masters desire. It’s the stuff that we can’t see or use as individuals that matters. The public gets a benefit (of sorts), the advertisers pay for it with their cash and we all pay for it with our attention. Meanwhile, BT, Intersection / Sidewalk Labs / Google / Alphabet and advertising partner Primesight get to monitor almost every aspect of public urban life with scant regulatory oversight while building the whole system effectively for free. Then they sell this unique data back to the city or anyone else they choose to do business with.

It’s hard not to feel that we’re all the victims of the London’s biggest ever heist. Rather than us building our own “smart city” platform for our own purposes and under our control — should we need one at all — we’ve had it done for us while we were asleep. We don’t own the platform and we don’t own the data. We can’t turn it off and before long, as we get hooked on the data it produces, it’ll own us.