Critics seek more details from Sidewalk Labs about proposed Toronto neighbourhood

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 many privacy and data concerns about the implications of living in a high-tech neighbourhood remain unclear.

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.

“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,” says Clement, who imagines the neighbourhood’s streets will 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.

“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.”

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 “a more detailed look at the work underway.”

In advance of the meeting, Sidewalk Labs released a document outlining the progress so far on developing its data policy. In terms of privacy, the company says it will disclose information on how and why personal data is collected and used and will seek “meaningful consent” from individuals. It also says it will not sell personal information to third parties or exploit it for advertising purposes.

But Tech Reset Canada co-founder Bianca Wylie says without concrete details about the building plans for the neighbourhood, the data document isn’t helpful.

“You need specificivity in order to assess this stuff. So halfway in and no products, no design, no business model, even putting this stuff out to discuss without specifics is not that helpful,” Wylie says.

The document also suggests the data residency issue has not been resolved, which should have been addressed from the start, she adds.

“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,” Wylie says.

“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.

“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 advisors 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.