As many feared, Google’s ambitious Sidewalk Toronto “smart city” project turns out to be a “surveillance city”

Posted on Oct 27, 2018 by Glyn Moody

The idea of “smart cities” – the application of digital technologies to the urban environment – is much in vogue. But as this blog has noted, although potentially powerful, the approach does raise serious issues for privacy. Perhaps the most ambitious “smart city” project so far is one involving a sister company of Google, Sidewalk Labs. After looking at over 50 possible partners it choose to work with the Canadian city of Toronto. Sidewalk Toronto was announced in October last year, and involves the redevelopment of a publicly-owned space of more than 800 acres, one of North America’s largest areas of underdeveloped urban land. The initial project involves just 12 acres, on which Sidewalk Labs says it will spend $50 million. Its plans were summarized by the New York Times as follows:

Quayside, as the project is known, will be laden with sensors and cameras tracking everyone who lives, works or merely passes through the area. In what Sidewalk calls a marriage of technology and urbanism, the resulting mass of data will be used to further shape and refine the new city. Lifting a term from its online sibling [Google], the company calls the Toronto project “a platform.”

As the use of the term “platform” indicates, Google’s sibling company sees this as part of a much larger move into a new technology sector where products and services can be developed and then rolled out elsewhere to turn Sidewalk Labs into a profitable standalone business. The chairman of Alphabet, the parent company of both Google and Sidewalk Labs, Eric Schmidt, said the project was “all the things you could do if someone would just give us a city and put us in charge.” Alphabet insisted it needed “full autonomy from city regulations so it can build without constraint” and use Sidewalk Toronto as a testbed for new technologies that will monitor and measure urban activity on an unprecedented scale. This will include gathering data from people’s smartphones as they move around the space, video camera feeds, and embedded sensors:

Toilets and sinks will report their water use; the garbage robots will report on trash collection. Residents and workers in the area will rely on Sidewalk-developed software to gain access to public services; the data gathered from everything will influence long-term planning and development.

That depth of surveillance naturally rings alarm bells in terms of the privacy issues it raises. Very soon after the plans were unveiled, The Torontoist published a list of dozens of questions on many aspects of the project, including privacy. Sidewalk Labs responded quickly with a feedback report that tried to answer most of the points raised. This is just one of many documents published by the company on its slick Web site, as it sought to assuage public concerns. These include, for example, its approach to data privacy. However, troubling aspects of the project soon emerged. It was revealed that it was a non-profit development corporation, not the city of Toronto, that had agreed the deal with Google:

The details of the arrangement are not public, the planning process is being paid for by Google, and Google won’t continue funding that process unless government authorities promise they’ll reach a final agreement that aligns with Google’s interests. Those interests include Google’s desire to expand its Toronto experiments beyond that 12-acre Quayside plot.

It seemed that Toronto’s officials would have access to very little of the detailed data that will be gathered by Sidewalk Labs as the key output of the project. Instead, Google alone would be able to mine that data for insights into how cities work, how people use them – and how urban life can be improved. That’s great news for Alphabet, which will be able to sell that information to other cities around the world, but left Toronto with little benefit from the deal.

Serious doubts about the wisdom of giving Google the exclusive rights to this valuable resource began to surface earlier this year. Partly in response, the project issued its Responsible Data Use Policy Framework:

while privacy concerns around urban data are not new, we believe that Sidewalk Toronto has a unique opportunity – and a core responsibility – to innovate not just on how data will be used, but on how its use will be governed.

Attempts to convince members of the public that everything was fine did not impress one participant: “It’s been almost a week since the third public meeting of five for Sidewalk Toronto and I’m still struggling for words to describe the arrogance and gas-lighting that took place there.” A former chairman and co-CEO of Research In Motion, best-known for creating the Blackberry phone, wrote a scathing piece about the way Sidewalk Toronto intended to retain full control over the data it gathered. As he pointed out:

Data has already been used as a potent tool to manipulate individuals, social relationships and autonomy. Any data collected can be reprocessed and analysed in new ways in the future that are unanticipated at the time of collection and this has major implications for our privacy, prosperity, freedom and democracy.

Sidewalk Toronto tried to calm fears by changing its plans, and promising that it wouldn’t seek to control the data collected through its project. Instead, it said it wanted to see a public trust created to take charge of such data. It released a draft of its 41-page Digital Governance Proposals. One of the reasons it claimed it was committed to “responsible data use” was that “We engaged Dr. Ann Cavoukian, the three-term Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario, who created the internationally adopted Privacy by Design framework, as an advisor to the project.” Cavoukian is a widely-respected expert on privacy, so her involvement was designed to act as a guarantee that people’s data would be used in ways that respected their personal data.

However, that assurance was fatally undermined this week when Cavoukian resigned from her consulting role with the project. She wrote in her letter of resignation: “I imagined us creating a Smart City of Privacy, as opposed to a Smart City of Surveillance.” Specifically, she had been told that the data collected by Sidewalk Toronto would be wiped and unidentifiable. But she learned during a meeting last week that third parties could access identifiable information gathered in the district. Although Sidewalk Labs said it would commit to making data unidentifiable, it was unable to guarantee that third parties would do the same.

Losing Cavoukian is a huge blow to Sidewalk Toronto’s claims to “responsible data use”. News that third parties would have access to identifiable user data confirms all the critics’ worst fears that “smart cities” are just “surveillance cities”. It’s not clear how Toronto’s project will move forward after these damaging developments, since there can now be little public confidence that deeply-revealing personal data will be suitably protected. At the very least, Sidewalk Toronto should act as a warning to other cities around the world who may be contemplating similar projects that protecting citizens’ privacy is absolutely crucial, and not something that can ever be compromised without serious negative consequences.

Featured image by Sidewalk Toronto.

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