Detroit might soon have interactive kiosks amid privacy concerns

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — Dozens of interactive booths with free Wi-Fi, suggestions for dining and shopping or finding an open shelter bed for the homeless might soon be sprouting up downtown.

The Downtown Detroit Partnership has entered into a 15-year agreement with Ohio-based IKE Smart City that calls for the installation of at least 30 kiosks in the city's core and neighborhood districts, said Eric Larson, the partnership's CEO.

The Downtown Detroit Partnership conducted a demonstration last week in Cadillac Square of interactive kiosks being pushed for deployment in the city.

The new technology is planned amid tensions in Detroit over privacy concerns tied to the use of traffic-mounted cameras, real-time feeds to the police department's crime center and facial recognition software.

The kiosk technology — often equipped with high-definition security cameras — has also raised privacy concerns in some cities over unwanted surveillance and other features that may provide a user's personal information to third parties.

Detroit is believed to be the first city deploying IKE kiosks without cameras, Larson said, but the terminals can be retrofitted later on "if everybody is comfortable with it."

Following months of controversy, Detroit's Board of Police Commissioners last month approved a policy that will govern the police department's use of facial recognition software, a technology that's already been in use for about a year-and-a-half. 

"Part of the top criteria by which we were making this decision was working with vendors that did not either retain and/or sell private information," Larson said. "That was very important to us from the beginning. Obviously, with the current debate, it becomes that much more critical."

First launched in Denver, the kiosks are already in use in a few cities, including San Antonio, Baltimore and Columbus. They remain in the planning stages in a dozen others, including Detroit.

Larson said the partnership is hoping to gain approval from Detroit's City Council within the next 30 days to move ahead on obtaining permits for the first phase of installation, which would include eight to 10 kiosks in and around the Woodward corridor. 

In the meantime, the partnership conducted a three-day demonstration last week in Cadillac Square and Grand Circus Park. 

Larson said there's no cost to the city or Downtown Detroit Partnership for the kiosks, and IKE is responsible for installation and maintenance. It derives its revenue from ad space. 

IKE's CEO Pete Scantland, and Mark Thompson, a development director who has worked on Detroit's project, previously deferred all comment to the Downtown Detroit Partnership. A spokeswoman for the company could not be reached Monday. 

Each IKE kiosk can be customized with job postings, navigation assistance or access to city council agendas and emergency alerts. They also provide details on nearby attractions, retail, food, arts and culture. 

Other functions include real-time transit feeds, an emergency calling system, opinion polls and games, according to the company's website. IKE also offers a photo booth that can integrate with social media, an option that Larson said won't be offered in Detroit.

Christine Bannan, consumer protection counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C., said free public Wi-Fi for under-served communities is a key benefit of the kiosk technology. But when it comes to data sharing, she said, there can always be potential for the negative. 

"On a broader scale, it just opens the door to more surveillance and vulnerabilities," she said. "Even if it's totally pure intentions at the beginning."

Larson contends Wi-Fi technology on the kiosks is enabled only to identify a signal and does not have the capability to identify an individual user or any information. 

"We are not providing any data collection, any cameras or any surveillance," he said. 

The models coming to Detroit won't have an ongoing surveillance feature or camera that activates when the 911 call button is depressed. But talks to add those could come later, Larson said. 

"Obviously, with the 911 call button, it is very helpful to have a camera activate," he said.

Detroit police Chief James Craig said that he and his team haven't been looped into discussions yet about the potential uses of the technology to aid in crime-fighting. But he's open to hearing the public safety benefits.

"I support the use of technology as long as it's done in a constitutionally protected way," he said. 

Any suggestion, however to embed facial recognition software into the kiosks, he said, would be a "non-starter." Craig supports facial recognition technology but said it "has not matured to a level where it's at 100%."

"Facial recognition would not be something that I would even consider at this juncture," he said. 

In San Antonio, officials embarked on a pilot with 30 kiosks close to two years ago. The city has installed some in parks and the city's downtown, said Brian Dillard, the city's chief innovation officer.

San Antonio's kiosks do use cameras for a photo booth feature, but they're not used for surveillance, which Dillard said, "actually has been a limitation."

"We have had a couple of cases of vandalism," he said. "There was a question of 'should we turn on the surveillance option or attach a camera.' We decided not to go in that direction."

The city council in Berkeley, California, is expected to consider the locations for its first 15 kiosks next week, said Kieron Slaughter, community development project coordinator for the city's Office of Economic Development. 

Slaughter said Berkeley also opted to go without the ongoing security camera feature.

"We have a very informed population here, and they do express some concerns about privacy," he said. "We've been assured that there's no data that's going to be stored or sold. The privacy statement is on the website. It's clear. We're comfortable with that."

According to the privacy policy posted on IKE's website, many features, services and information available on the kiosks can be accessed anonymously. 

The device will track information sought most often by its anonymous users. That information may then be shared "without restriction" with the city where the IKE is located, local partners and technology partners "or any other party as we reasonably deem necessary," the company website says.

For some interactive features, the kiosk will ask for information that may personally identify a user. That information, the site notes, will only be retained to perform the service and won't be shared, sold or otherwise disclosed, subject to features operated by a third-party partner. 

Detroit City Councilman Scott Benson said he regards the kiosks as a beneficial tool for residents, especially in city neighborhoods. But like any other technology, he said, "be cognizant, be aware and be cautious about what information you give to anybody or anything."