An industry friend turned me on to what has becoming an ongoing issue with the “smart city” kiosks being installed in big cities around the UK. Turns out the digital information stations are really popular with drug dealers.

The big LinkUK digital slabs – that are either the same or very close to the same as the LinkNYC kiosks in New York – offer free phone calls to UK numbers, including mobiles. That enables people to call dealers’ phones, order drugs and give a location.

The stations are going in via Intersection, which is backed in the UK by British Telecom. They are going in by the hundreds, replacing old phone boxes. They feature:

  • Free Wi-Fi;
  • Free UK landline and mobile calls;
  • Free mobile device charging;
  • Free access to maps, directions and local and emergency services;
  • Two large HD displays for digital advertising, PSAs and local content.

London’s Metropolitan Police Service filed a recent report objecting to plans to install more units in rougher parts of the city. “A recent investigation found that over a 105-day period five of these units were used over 20,000 times in connection with drug misuse,” wrote PC Kevin Hook, an officer with the Tower Hamlets police station.

The police suggest an average of 20 drug deals were done every day, on a handful of kiosks on streets in the central London areas of Whitechapel, Bethnal Green and Commercial Road.

At one point a local council police halted the installs, but I am not sure that’s the case now. In at least one area the free calling feature was disabled.

These kinds of smart city systems are often equipped with things like touchscreens for browsing, free VOIP phone calls and charging ports. The “smart” aspects of the stations make the dubious argument that these things are more than just digital posters. But they would not exist were it not for the big screens on both sides running booked digital OOH advertising spots in tight rotations.

The complementary things – like the phones and screens – have been subject to no end of vandalism problems, and in New York, the browser screens were being used to watch porn.