The Downtown Seattle Association (DSA) wants to prop up 30 digital kiosks powered by IKE Smart City to run advertisements, display maps, and to emit free Wi-Fi. The kiosks' ads would raise a projected $1 million a year for DSA and smaller Business Improvement Areas (BIAs) to pay for downtown improvement initiatives at no cost to the budget-challenged City of Seattle. But, as the old saying goes, if something is free, then you're the product.

In a presentation to the Seattle Design Commission earlier this month, DSA included just two sentences about data privacy on a single page of a 39-slide presentation. DSA’s initial gloss excluded some important “contradictory” and “slightly horrifying” points from IKE’s privacy policy, ACLU Technology Policy Program Director Tee Sannon said in a phone interview with The Stranger

“We should all be concerned about what happens to our data. We don't know what this company stands for. We don't know what they're actually doing with our information," Sannon added. 

Smile, You’re on Camera

In its presentation, the DSA wrote that “IKE does not collect or sell personally identifiable information.” This assertion, however, is incorrect. IKE collects, stores, and retains the right to distribute camera footage from its kiosks.

According to IKE’s privacy policy, the cameras “capture images of the area surrounding the kiosk, and those images may include you.” In an email, the company said that "the cameras only record photo images and only when activated by a user."

IKE said it will not store any camera footage for longer than 15 days “unless the footage is necessary to investigate an incident.” The company may also share data to “improve the functionality and ensure the security of the Kiosks, as necessary to address illegal activity on, associated with or perpetrated against the Kiosks or in the surrounding area, or if we believe the disclosure is required by law or in the interest of public safety.”

According to IKE's privacy policy as of Monday morning, a third party runs the kiosks’ “photo booth” feature. The policy states that the companies give “information that may personally identify you” to third-party partners that operate the kiosks’ apps. “We do not exercise control over our Third-Party Partners, and you will be subject to their policies and terms and conditions when you engage with any feature operated by a Third-Party Partner,” the policy reads. The company recommends users consult the third party’s policies but does not identify these partners on their website.

After receiving questions from The Stranger, IKE revealed that the company had not updated its privacy policy. Now, IKE claims its own IKE Smart City software runs the photo booth without third-party involvement.  

"IKE is currently updating their privacy policy accordingly," a spokesperson wrote in an email.

Privacy advocates said IKE may readily hand over images to law enforcement to bust someone, depending on the company's sensibilities. Founder of Washington People’s Privacy Maya Morales said cameras can be particularly dangerous for undocumented immigrants or people traveling out of state for reproductive care or for gender-affirming health care. 

Washington State became a sanctuary state in 2019, so local authorities cannot ask about someone’s immigration status. More recently, the State Legislature passed an abortion shield law, requiring courts to block subpoenas from anti-choice states seeking to punish residents who travel for abortion and their providers. However, these laws do not prevent companies such as IKE or the partners—should the company quietly start using them again—from ratting out immigrants and abortion seekers.

IKE said that cities can opt out of the camera feature all together. The City of Berkeley, which rolled out nine IKE kiosks in 2022, mitigated the 1984 vibes by using a camera-free version of the kiosks. 

DSA did not respond to my request for comment about whether or not they would want camera-equipped kiosks. The association’s presentation did not specifically mention video surveillance or cameras, but it implicitly endorsed the cameras by highlighting the “photo booth” feature in a slide about the kiosks’ interactive apps. 

I Know Where You Wayfind

Privacy advocates also raised concerns about the IKE kiosks’ Wi-Fi feature.

Morales told The Stranger that data brokers make a lot of money from selling personal information. A 2012 analysis found that something as innocuous as an email address may be worth $90, or about $125 adjusted for inflation. In a 2013 congressional hearing, the executive director of the World Privacy Forum revealed that data brokers sold lists of “rape sufferers,” “erectile dysfunction sufferers,” and people with other vulnerabilities at about $79, or about $107 adjusted for inflation, in exchange for 1,000 names to advertise to.   

Plus, any phone with the Wi-Fi feature turned on may share “certain technical information” with IKE, according to the company’s privacy policy. The ACLU's Sannon said that means the third-party partner will have access to the Media Access Control (MAC) address of any passersby. A MAC is a unique code that basically acts as the license plate number for a device. 

With information like a MAC address, Morales said that IKE or the Wi-Fi provider can ping a phone’s location. Again, this could help advertisers understand consumer habits or help law enforcement make arrests.

IKE said it does not store browser history or track websites used on its free Wi-Fi, but a third party, T-Mobile, runs the feature and, again, IKE does not exercise control over its partners, according to its privacy policy.

However, in an email IKE claimed the company automatically removes identifying data from the kiosk "as soon as the user deactivates the connection or exceeds the Wi-Fi range" of 50 to 75 ft. A company spokesperson said, "This data is not shared with T-Mobile, which can only see the IKE router ID and not the IDs of connected devices."

But users must rely on IKE's word because the State Legislature and federal government have failed to pass robust privacy laws to undermine the lucrative data market and protect consumers, such as the People’s Privacy Act. And the policies can change at any time, IKE said. 

Both Morales and Sannon emphasized the need for strong privacy protections, but Morales said doing so in Washington State means a hard battle against the powerful tech lobby. Plus, some of the serious data privacy attempts at the national level would preempt state laws, preventing more privacy-minded states from passing stricter regulations, Morales added.

On the Bright Side

Overall, IKE’s privacy policies do not inspire confidence in Sannon. She said they seemed written in “bad faith” to give users a false sense of security. IKE did not specifically respond to that accusation.

But if the City can strike a deal that eliminates those privacy concerns, then Morales said that there’s probably some benefit to the kiosks.

According to DSA’s presentation, the kiosks will highlight community events, display local job listings, direct users to homeless shelters, identify real-time travel routes, and more things you could probably do on the smartphone that 97% of Americans carry with them. Furthermore, the “wayfinding” appeal of the kiosks only goes so far, considering the kiosk would block three square feet of sidewalks, potentially adding more obstacles for wheelchair users on crowded paths. 

Proponents for similar kiosks in the past lauded the free Wi-Fi as a means to promote social equity. However, that level of internet access pales in comparison to the kind of policy that public broadband advocates have pushed for.

Devin Glaser, the former executive director of the now-disbanded digital equity lobby group Upgrade Seattle, said he doesn’t have a strong opinion on the kiosks, but it’s clear they're not substitutes for “ubiquitous and affordable home Internet for all.”

In a message, Glaser wrote, “It seems particularly dark that we're going to close down public libraries or limit their hours because the City refuses to raise progressive public revenue and instead demand children do their school work at a kiosk in the rain.” Someone reads the blog

Privacy Politics

In an email to The Stranger, a spokesperson for the Mayor said he is supportive of the proposal because it provides a range of public amenities "that would complement the goals of Mayor Harrell’s Downtown Activation Plan, including promotion of local businesses and events, way-finding and mobility tools for visitors, and accessible information on resources like food and shelter for people in need. Additionally, the City would be able use the kiosks to share real-time safety or weather warnings in the event of an emergency."

Harrell  proposed to “install a network of digital navigation kiosks” as part of the Downtown Activation Plan he rolled out last summer. IKE said that DSA and the Mayor want to install the kiosks before the FIFA World Cup in 2026.

It's not hard to imagine why Harrell would like the kiosks. Standing more than eight feet tall, the device's sleek yet imposing design brings some Jetsons-esque charm to the streets of Cincinnati, Denver, Detroit, Houston, and fifteen other mid-sized cities across the country. It's also free to the City and pays for a program that Harrell and his deep-pocketed donors both support. 

Also, Harrell is into surveillance. He said he has been “evangelizing” about police body cams since 2010, about four years before Seattle would launch its pilot program for the cop tech. He also won’t give up on his quest to install not-so-effective and probably racist acoustic gunshot locating software made by one of his donors.

The Mayor is currently pushing for a package of new surveillance tech, which included gunshot locator software, CCTV cameras, and new software for SPD’s Real Time Crime Center. But that project is slow-going, with strong opposition from anti-surveillance organizations against him and with the city council delaying action on it several times. 

Morales said that the kiosks feel “consciously or not” like an “insurance policy.” So even if the city council caves to public pressure and tanks Harrell’s tech wishlist, the City could still get cameras on the street—perhaps with less grief from the public. 

It may be harder for advocates to mount a challenge to the kiosks than the more explicitly invasive cop tech. Morales said that many people, perhaps even this (admittedly ignorant) Stranger reporter, subscribe to a philosophy known as “privacy nihilism,” which describes an ambivalence to privacy as it seems an increasingly daunting task to protect oneself in the modern surveillance state.

But even if a person doesn't care if the cops get footage of them or if data brokers profit off their personal information, then Sannon argued that companies should at least have to get more explicit consent before scooping your data. Like, fuck, ask before you advertise walking pads to me on every web page.