Google’s Sidewalk Labs project in Toronto raises privacy, data concerns

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Toronto’s eastern waterfront will be home to a brand new high-tech neighbourhood called “Quayside.” As Caryn Lieberman reports, it will be the first of its kind – Oct 17, 2017

TORONTO – Andrew Clement hopes privacy-conscious Torontonians won’t have to fear visiting the proposed Quayside neighbourhood.

It was about six months ago that the tri-government organization Waterfront Toronto announced it had chosen Sidewalk Labs, which is owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet, to envision a brand new area of the city built from scratch with innovative technologies and infrastructure, including roads designed for driverless cars.

But critics say the public still knows very little about the company’s intentions at the halfway point of a promised year of “extensive community and stakeholder consultation,” and privacy and data concerns about the implications of living in a high-tech neighbourhood remain unaddressed.

READ MORE: Sidewalk Labs ‘hadn’t foreseen’ data concerns by Canadians in designing Toronto neighbourhood

Clement, a professor emeritus with the University of Toronto and co-founder of the school’s Identity, Privacy and Security Institute, says the lack of information released thus far “invites speculation and skepticism” and has only stoked data security and surveillance fears, particularly since the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal broke in March. He says that episode revealed how the sharing of personal data could have unintended consequences down the road.

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“I have a concern that the data that’s going to be collected is going to produce this huge quantity of information that will at least in its origin be linkable to individuals,” says Clement, who imagines the neighbourhood’s streets may be dotted with video cameras and other sensors that could potentially track people’s movements, traffic patterns, and the IDs of mobile devices connecting to wireless networks.

“My position is that as an individual whose information is being captured, I want to know what it’s going to be used for, at least in broad terms, even if it’s de-identified. I’d also want to know who’s going to make money on this data, even if it’s anonymized.”

He can imagine some citizens deciding to avoid the area entirely because of privacy fears or out of protest.

READ MORE: Google headquarters to headline Toronto’s plan for a high-tech waterfront community

“That’s a very plausible outcome and I would say that’s understandable but would be unfortunate,” adds Clement.

“Obviously there’s a lot of interest and curiosity and people will want to come, but we shouldn’t develop a neighbourhood that runs on the same model as Facebook or Google where it has interesting things to offer but you have to swallow your privacy concerns in order to use it.”

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During public consultation meetings about six weeks ago, Sidewalk Labs head of legal Alyssa Harvey Dawson was noncommittal when asked whether the project’s data – including information about citizens in public spaces – would be retained within the country, saying only “security is going to be paramount.” A Waterfront Toronto executive later said the U.S. company “hadn’t foreseen” that so-called data residency would be a critical “non-negotiable.”

More meetings are scheduled for Thursday, where Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto are set to reveal an “updated approach to data privacy” and “a more detailed look at the work underway.”

Tech Reset Canada co-founder Bianca Wylie says she was disappointed that Sidewalk Labs wasn’t committed to data residency from the start.

“How is this not something that was negotiated before anyone even sat down together?” Wylie says.

“If we don’t have data residency and data routing laws that force this data to stay within Canada – both where it’s stored and where it’s moved around – it can be subject to (foreign) legislation. If it’s going to the United States, you’ve got American legislation that Canadians’ data would be subject to.

“If our data is subject to laws that aren’t ours, we’re out of control.”

She expressed frustration with “a fundamental lack of democratic participation in this process” and says the public hasn’t been given enough of a say in what happens to its city.

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“We haven’t talked about if – if – we want our data collected or how we would like it to be used in public space,” Wylie says.

“Public space, that’s right now kind of like the last frontier of a place where you could theoretically not be tracked or not be sharing data.”

Last week, Waterfront Toronto announced it had formed an arms-length panel of advisers to give input on “data privacy, digital systems, and the safe and ethical use of new technologies in the next phase of waterfront revitalization.”

“In some ways we’re a little bit in uncharted territory here when you have a project of this size bringing together a very large company, cutting-edge technologies, and governments that by definition have openness and transparency obligations,” says interim chairman Michael Geist, a University of Ottawa law professor and Canada Research Chair in internet and e-commerce law.

“My hope is that despite the fact that the timeline in the calendar is moving quickly that there is still considerable opportunity to help shape the confines of the project.”

Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs declined interview requests in advance of Thursday’s public meetings.

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