Sidewalk Labs' proposed neighbourhood remains a lightning rod for privacy concerns

Concerns are mounting that Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto — the developers behind a brand new, high-tech neighbourhood by Lake Ontario — have not done enough to allay the public's fears around privacy and data collection.

Sidewalk Labs has promised more information at a meeting scheduled for Thursday

Sidewalk Labs has proposed the redevelopment of what's currently a stretch of parking lots and former industrial space along Toronto's eastern waterfront. But it's plan — still in development — will need a green light from the city. (Sidewalk Labs)

Andrew Clement hopes privacy-conscious Torontonians won't have to fear visiting the proposed Quayside neighbourhood.

But at the halfway point of a year of "extensive community and stakeholder consultation" on the project, the University of Toronto professor says there's still plenty the public doesn't know about how data and privacy will be handled in the futuristic community. 

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.

The neighbourhood would be built from scratch with innovative technologies and infrastructure, including roads designed for driverless cars.

Clement, who co-founded 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. 

He says those fears have intensified since the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal broke in March, an episode he believes revealed how the sharing of personal data could have unintended consequences down the road.

University of Toronto professor Andrew Clement says Torontonians need to know what any collected data will be used for. (Surveillance Studies Centre)

"I have a concern that the data that's going to be collected is going to produce this huge quantity of information that will at least in its origin be linkable to individuals," says Clement.

He 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.

"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," he said. 

'Security is going to be paramount'

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 the document suggests the data residency issue has not been resolved, which Tech Reset Canada co-founder Bianca Wylie says should have been addressed from the start.

Critics are concerned about how data collected in the neighbourhood will be stored and possibly shared. (Dominique Boutin/TASS via Getty Images)

"How is this not something that was negotiated before anyone even sat down together?" Wylie says.

"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.

"If our data is subject to laws that aren't ours, we're out of control."

More public input

Wylie also 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.