Urban Stall

A Proposed Smart-City Project in Canada Battles Privacy Concerns


A rendering shows what a courtyard development could look like at Sidewalk Labs’ Quayside project in Toronto.

A proposed smart-city project in Toronto, Ontario, Canada has stalled out due to stakeholder privacy concerns. The Quayside project, helmed by Google's Sidewalk Labs and designed by architecture studios Snøhetta and Heatherwick Studio, was initiated in 2017. The concept includes 3,000 housing units built with timber, “smart curbs” to ease traffic, solar power and geothermal heat, as well as wireless 5G internet.

But critics have balked that smarter living will come at the price of privacy for future residents. That's because much of the smart technology integrated into the proposed project depends on Quayside constantly collecting data—on everything from traffic patterns to compost participation. Ann Cavoukian, PhD, one of Canada's foremost privacy experts and a consultant on the project, left the initiative after discovering that third-party entities would have access to identifiable data. While Sidewalk Labs has stated in its communication plans that the project sponsor would use only deidentified data, the group wasn't able to guarantee other involved entities would. “When I heard that, I said: ‘I'm sorry. I can't support this. I have to resign because you committed to embedding privacy by design into every aspect of your operation,’” Dr. Cavoukian told Global News.

In April, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association sued the government and Waterfront Toronto, the project's publicly funded advisory panel organization, claiming the legal agreements between Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs violated the privacy rights of Canadian citizens. Meanwhile, a citizen group called #BlockSidewalk has formed to protest moving ahead with the Quayside proposal for now.

“Everything about this project has been overwhelmingly opaque,” Melissa Goldstein, a community activist, told The Toronto Star. “It's been impossible to get clear answers about even the most basic things about this project, and after 16 months of trying, I think I speak for everyone when I say that we're pretty much fed up.”

For its part, the project team at Sidewalk Labs has pledged that the smart city won't utilize facial-recognition technology and that it will strictly adhere to self-imposed privacy guidelines. “As we have made clear, we believe that data collected in public space must be overseen and closely controlled by an independent and publicly accountable data trust, not Sidewalk Labs, Google or any private company,” spokesperson Keerthana Rang told The Guardian. And while the project may be stalled by setbacks, it's far from canceled. In June, Sidewalk Labs released its master innovation and development plan to Waterfront Toronto, which has made it publicly available for feedback.

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