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The MTA’s Help Point kiosks could be used for surveillance

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Updates for chemical-agent sniffers and gunshot detectors

Andrew J. Hawkins

Update February 25, 2016, 5:46PM ET: The Help Point kiosks that have been installed in New York City subway stations are modular units that can be updated to include operational 180-degree cameras, chemical agent detection, and audio analysis. However, none of the models currently installed in stations across the city have these features yet. A previous version of this story misstated this fact after a presentation at the NYC Transit Museum by the manufacturer of the Help Point hubs highlighted these features in a demonstration model he had brought to the event, and a follow-up conversation with a company employee indicated the features existed in the unit, but were not active. An MTA spokesperson apologized for the confusion.

If you live in New York City and you ride the subway, you've probably seen those tall, skinny Help Point kiosks with the blue glowing light on top. On the surface, the intercom systems, which debuted in 2011, seem fairly straightforward: a red button for emergencies, a green button for information. But there is more to Help Point than meets the eye.

Peel back the Help Point's "ruggedized" outer layer and you'll find a number of fascinating features, like a 180-degree camera, Bluetooth beacon, an air sampler for detecting chemical agents, and an audio analyzer for identifying gunshots. That's right: those innocuous intercoms are actually sophisticated surveillance devices in disguise.

"...something we can pursue down the road."

A survey of the news clips that greeted the Help Points' initial rollout make no mention of these features. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority said Help Points were intended to replace the antiquated intercom system and are meant to provide an additional layer of safety and security on top of the presence of station agents who sit in booths outside the turnstiles.

But here's the problem: the air sampler and audio analyzer are not operational in any of the 2,000-plus Help Points that have been installed so far across the subway system. The MTA said they want to focus on getting hubs installed in all 468 stations before it considers activating its crime- and terrorism-detecting features.

"[Help Points] are an easily recognizable communications tool for customers who need to either report an emergency or ask for travel directions," an MTA spokesperson said. "Adding to the features and capabilities of the HPs is something we can pursue down the road."

I learned about these less-well-known features from Charles Boyce, president of Boyce Technologies, a Long Island City, Queens-based company that designed and build the Help Points. On Tuesday, Boyce was one of three MTA vendors to give presentations at an evening gathering of subway nerds at the New York City Transit Museum. (The other two vendors were Transit Wireless, which is installing Wi-Fi in all 248 underground subway stations, and Civiq, which makes the over-sized On The Go touchscreen kiosks.)

About 2,200 calls a day

Boyce gave attendees an inside look at the Help Point kiosks, including demonstrations of its video-recording capabilities. Riders who press the emergency button are connected to NYC Transit's Rail Control Center, an operations hub that can handle problems such as a person falling on the tracks. About 2,200 calls are made from Help Points each day, a blend of emergency and information, Boyce said.

The MTA is gearing up for a glossy overhaul, under the direction of Governor Andrew Cuomo, which includes system-wide Wi-Fi, contactless and mobile ticketing, countdown clocks for all the train lines, and USB chargers in buses and subways. Around 30 subway stations will be closed for months-long renovations, which includes digital wayfinding, new signage, and better lighting.