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'At best foolish, and at worst tyrannical': Alphabet's smart city in Toronto raises privacy concerns

Sidewalk Labs designing Toronto smart city project (The Canadian Press)
Sidewalk Labs designing Toronto smart city project (The Canadian Press)

Google sister company Sidewalk Labs wants to turn a piece of Toronto’s waterfront into a data driven smart city. Imagine an urban laboratory with an array of sensors and cameras designed to address big city problems, like congestion and housing.

It’s still in the early planning phase, but think robots that magically appear to clean up garbage, energy efficient buildings, pedestrian monitoring, and roads to accommodate self-driving cars.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the area could become a “thriving hub for innovation.”
Some worry the plan could set the stage for a surveillance state.

A municipal-provincial-federal development agency called Waterfront Toronto picked the Alphabet-owned company for the project last October. Waterfront Toronto recognizes people have concerns. But are they overblown?

“If you consider the central importance of ensuring privacy protection in the building of a smart neighbourhood, I would say no.” Chantal Bernier, Legal Counsel for Waterfront Toronto told Yahoo Finance Canada. “If you consider the robust privacy protection regime in Ontario and in Canada, I would say yes. The current debate seems to ignore the fact that privacy laws in Canada effectively govern the use of personal information to respect the fundamental right to privacy.”

Who controls the data?

Sidewalk Labs plans to hand over control of the urban data to an independent civic data trust.
All the parties involved, including the city and other companies involved in Sidewalk Labs, would have a say in how the de-identified data will be used.

Ontario’s Former Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian told Yahoo Finance Canada the framework is the reason she resigned from her consulting role with Sidewalk Labs on October 19. She says the criticism against Sidewalk Labs has been about governance, not privacy.

“They said we will de-identify the data at the source but we can’t guarantee what other parties are going to do. We have no control over what other parties will do with the data and that’s when all the bells went off in my head,” says Cavoukian. “I had to make a statement.”

Cavoukian says Waterfront Toronto needs to lay down the law and insist all parties with access to the data must de-identify it at the source.

“Otherwise you’ll have personal identifiable data that will be a treasure trove and nobody will have privacy.”

For many of us privacy means control. And that’s part of the reason Sidewalk Labs is stirring up so much controversy.

“Sidewalk is not addressing this larger question of who is control. Who controls the data. Who makes decisions. This is the fly in their ointment.,” Jesse Hirsh, President of Metaviews, told Yahoo Finance Canada. “What is a democratic smart neighbourhood? By ignoring this crucial question Sidewalk Labs looks at best foolish, and at worst tyrannical.”

Hirsh says we already have no expectations of privacy when we’re out in public, and none of this means Alphabet isn’t to be trusted.

“I also think that Sidewalk, and their parent company Alphabet, are probably one of the world’s leading companies when it comes to protecting people’s privacy,” says Hirsh. “I’m a Google user, and I actually trust their ability to protect my privacy while also providing helpful services.”

At 3.3 million square feet of office space and retail space, this will be the largest attempt at creating a smart-city in North America. To help get things started, Alphabet plans to move Google’s Canadian headquarters to the Eastern Waterfront.

Download the Yahoo Finance app, available for Apple and Android.