Canada’s Digital Charter not strong enough to soothe privacy concerns on Sidewalk Labs: critics

WATCH: Ottawa unveils digital charter to protect Canadians' data

Canada’s Digital Charter lacks sufficient legal enforcement power to effectively protect privacy and regulate use of personal data, according to critics worried that a smart city project in Toronto by Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs unit could be misused for mass surveillance.

The Digital Charter was announced this month to guide Canada on data and the digital economy, and mentions concerns about smart cities. Sidewalk Toronto is a data-driven urban development project that Sidewalk Labs is doing on the city’s harbourfront. It uses sensors in public areas that detect energy use, traffic, and pollution. Critics say it lacks sufficient privacy controls.

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The Digital Charter “is intended to provide comfort to citizens of Canada regarding privacy, but it’s talk,” said Ann Cavoukian, former information and privacy commissioner of Ontario.

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Cavoukian resigned from her position as a privacy advisor for Sidewalk Labs last year after the project did not guarantee anonymity with a provision to let people remove their identity from a publicly viewable database called the Civic Data Trust.

“That would mean personally identified data would be the end of privacy,” Cavoukian said.

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READ MORE: Canadian Civil Liberties Association threatens lawsuit over Sidewalk Labs project

Sidewalk Labs spokeswoman Keerthana Rang said in an email to Reuters that the project was pleased to see the Digital Charter provide for creation of data trusts and would keep working on the issue with Waterfront Toronto and the federal government.

She said Sidewalk Labs was committed to allowing anonymity but could not compel other companies and individuals to comply. Rang said Sidewalk Labs will submit a proposal for Waterfront Toronto in June.

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Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff said in a talk at last week’s Collision Conference that the project could open the first buildings in 2023. Rang said the 2023 date is possible, but they are focusing on the June proposal and public consultations currently.

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Brenda McPhail, director of the privacy, technology, and surveillance project of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, said the Digital Charter does not go far enough to protect citizens against potential abuses of data.

“What’s lacking is the solid legal safeguards to the extent that our government is committed to addressing data protection going forward,” she said.

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McPhail said the Civic Data Trust and data mobility are useful, but not effective substitutes for the law.

READ MORE: Ann Cavoukian, former Ontario privacy commissioner, resigns from Sidewalk Labs (Oct. 2018)

“Giving people more control over their data is something the Digital Charter promised, and is a part of how we control our private information, but it’s not efficient as a privacy protection,” she said.

Data mobility, the right to transfer one’s data from one company or organization to another, is proposed under the charter, aligning Canada with the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulations.

Despite the criticism, a majority of Torontonians remain in favor of Sidewalk Labs. A poll from Toronto Region Board of Trade (TRBT) released last week showed 54% of those polled were in support of Sidewalk Toronto, and a poll from February also commissioned by the TRBT showed 55% approved of Sidewalk Labs.

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