BlackBerry unveils secure smart-city service as CEO opens up about big tech

BlackBerry Inc. is making a play to integrate itself into smart cities and vehicles, announcing Monday that it has built a new service to provide infrastructure for vehicles and traffic lights to exchange information securely.

Canada needs to adopt a better set of policies around data privacy, John Chen says

Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Google's parent company Alphabet, wants to build pedestrian bridges, floating barges and outdoor projection screens in Quayside, Toronto. Now Blackberry wants into the market. (Sidewalk Labs)

BlackBerry Inc. is making a play to integrate itself into smart cities and vehicles.

The Waterloo, Ont.-based technology company announced Monday that it has built a new service to provide infrastructure for vehicles and traffic lights to exchange information securely.

BlackBerry will waive the service fees for the product for automakers and public offices involved in smart city and connected vehicle pilots because it says the offering is necessary to ensure users can trust the validity of information received from other systems.

The service will first be used in conjunction with Invest Ottawa, which will use it for a 16-kilometre road autonomous vehicle test track resembling a miniature city, complete with pavement markings, traffic lights, stop signs and pedestrian crosswalks.

Speaking at a conference in Toronto, BlackBerry chief executive John Chen denied the service was meant to target Google, whose sister company Sidewalk Labs has been marred by controversy over its proposal to build a smart city in Toronto.

"I think we are doing things they would rather not do for free," Chen said without elaborating around what those things are. 

"We just want to secure communications. We want to let people control their own privacy, and the level and degree, so that when you decide you want to share... it is your explicit consent to share."

Asked if technology companies rivalling BlackBerry are already too big to be reined in, especially when it comes to data and privacy, Chen said no.

"But if you cut off their ability to gather more data, then their data becomes stale, then the very big become meaningless," he said.

Dealing with them, needs to be a public-private policy issue and can't be one-sided, he added.

He has seen a "very big gap" between when technology becomes pervasive and when "policy people" enter discussions and raise concerns.

However, he said, "the gap needs to be minimized quite dramatically, but we shouldn't let government policy drive technology."

He called on Canada to adopt a better set of policies around data privacy and for individuals to think more carefully around how their data is used and their privacy can be compromised.

He pointed to mobile phones as an example, admitting he hasn't turned the GPS on his BlackBerry "for obvious reasons."

"Occasionally I can't find my phone and I wish I had turned on GPS," he said.

"I don't want to know where the closest gas station is and I don't want to give up my location, my private data for knowing where the gas stations are."