InLinkUK and BT have worked with the police and local councils on the new technology which aims to cut anti-social behaviour such as drug dealing. Smart crime prevention or surveillance?
InLinkUK and BT have introduced a new automatic call-blocking feature on all InLink digital street units to prevent misuse of the free calls service.
The new technology, which has been activated across all InLinks deployed across the UK, uses an algorithm to identify “suspicious” call patterns and phone numbers, such as calls made to sell or buy drugs. Any identified numbers are then blocked so that outgoing calls from any InLink in the UK cannot be made to those numbers.
InLinkUK is a joint venture between Intersection, the company behind LinkNYC, and media company Primesight. In partnership with BT, InLinkUK is aiming to replace over 1,000 payphones in major cities across the UK with new InLink kiosks which provide free public Wi-Fi, phone calls, device charging and a tablet for access to city services, maps and directions. The kiosks are funded by advertising. 412 InLinks are now active across 22 UK cities as well as 21 London boroughs.
Using anonymised data, the new algorithm examines a range of factors including the frequency of attempted and connected calls, the length and distribution of such calls, as well as “insights provided by the authorities”.
In an interview with SmartCitiesWorld, Matt Bird, General Manager for InLink UK, would not say more on exactly how the algorithm works and commented: “We don’t want to have this public and therefore ‘gamed’ by the very people that we’re trying to disrupt.
“There’s a formula that’s able to apply across numbers that have been dialled within a day and identify just that profile, and therefore block just those numbers. It’s a computer-driven activity so we’re able to be clever about how we apply it.”
"We don’t record the actual calls themselves so we’re not using any data contained within the call."
He added: “[We use] the metadata that sits around phone calls – and only phone calls. We don’t record the actual calls themselves so we’re not using any data contained within the call.”
The move to roll out the technology across all InLinkUK kiosks comes after the company disabled mobile calls at 18 kiosks in the Tower Hamlets area of London last year after complaints they were being used for drug dealing.
Police claimed 20,000 calls had been made to known drug dealers in just four months. One drug gang is thought to have made £1.28 million worth of sales from one of the booths. After the ability to make calls to mobiles was switched off altogether, there was a “significant decrease in anti-social behaviour” in the streets around the phones, a council spokesman told the Evening Standard at the time.
Bird said the InLinkUK free services had perhaps made crimes such as this more visible but noted: “None of these issues were created by InLink; they all existed in the in the specific areas, which police would call ‘high crime risk locations’.”
Bird commented: “What we learned through that process was by blocking calls to mobiles we were taking away a valued part of the service from the majority of users – which is the honest, law-abiding part of the community – because it’s being abused by a minority. The thinking then was about what we could learn [from the experience in Tower Hamlets] and reapply it in an intelligent way."
Asked whether the new move could be seen as surveillance, which is a common concern around smart cities, Bird said: “Our overall mission is to make a real, positive difference in communities.
"This particular issue [misuse of the kiosks] was something that was causing a negative impact to the communities and therefore it was absolutely right for us to come to the table, to learn and to listen, and then to take some direct action."
Bird said InLink would comply with Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) requests to hand over information about blocked calls, and this would be handled by BT. However, he stressed that there is a robust framework in place for making decisions on these requests and added: “What we do not do is package this up and provide it to the police or anyone else because we don’t feel that is right from a privacy perspective.
“We don’t abuse our end users’ privacy by proactively sharing the blocked numbers or any other data with the police or any other party.”
Initial results have shown that less than 0.5 per cent of total numbers called across the InLink network are associated with anti-social behaviour and are now blocked.
Initial results have shown that less than 0.5 per cent of total numbers called across the InLink network are associated with anti-social behaviour and are now blocked. There are some sites in areas deemed ‘high risk’ where all calls to mobiles remain blocked, including Tower Hamlets.
Manchester is one of the city councils BT and InLinkUK have been working closely with.
Councillor Pat Karney, Manchester City Council, said: "It’s great to see the InLinks continue to adapt based on feedback from the council, police and wider community. Reducing opportunities for misuse while still providing useful services is just one aspect of tackling crime and anti-social behaviour in Manchester, but it is important we address it at the earliest opportunity.
"Together with local police and other partners, we will continue to work hard to tackle the underlying issues of substance abuse, drug dealing and related crime and anti-social behaviour here in Manchester.”
Neil Scoresby, general manager, Payphones, BT, commented: “The speed at which we’ve introduced this new technology demonstrates our commitment to working with the authorities and local communities to address any concerns around anti-social issues and the InLinks. Developed and implemented by BT, the new call blocking feature will ensure that InLinks continue to be enjoyed by users in genuine need of the free, digital services provided by the units.”
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