Day 6

Your friendly neighbourhood terms of use agreement: What you need to know about living in a smart community

Google's sister company Sidewalks Labs promises a high-tech smart neighbourhood along Toronto's waterfront. Digital rights advocate Bianca Wylie says the cost in data may be too high.

'Now is a critical time to stop and ask what we want to commodify about our lives and who gets to do that'

Sidewalks Labs, a sister company of Google, has signed an agreement with Waterfront Toronto to plan and build a tech-focused community on the city's waterfront. (Sidewalk Labs)

How do you consent to the collection of your data as you stroll through a neighbourhood?

That's just one of the questions digital rights advocate Bianca Wylie has this week after Google's sister company, Sidewalk Labs, signed an agreement to plan and build a high-tech district along the city's waterfront.

Bianca Wylie, co-founder of Tech Reset Canada. (Calvin Thomas)

The details of exactly what will be a part of the district, known as Quayside, are still being worked out.

"There's a lot of exciting examples around autonomous vehicles, underground garbage robots [and] green energy infrastructure," said Wylie, co-founder of Tech Reset Canada and a Senior Fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation

"It doesn't mean that these are the things that will be here, but one thing that has been said persistently is that this is a neighborhood built from the Internet up. And so that to me is persistent data collection."

Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff has said he believes his company can reduce the cost of living in cities, eliminate car accidents and ensure sustainability.

But Wylie says projects like Sidewalk Labs' experimental high-tech neighbourhood are a move toward what she calls "a market within government," whereby private tech companies gather data from the public and sell it to government to assist in designing policy.

Sidewalk Labs has proposed the redevelopment of what is currently a stretch of parking lots and former industrial space along Toronto's eastern waterfront. (Sidewalk Labs)

In Illinois, for example, Wylie says Sidewalk Labs has received a contract from the state's transportation department for a product called Replica. The tool aggregates and analyzes cellphone and other data to generate movement and travel information.

The idea of tech companies gathering public data sits uncomfortably with Wylie, who says that information belongs to citizens, and by extension government, not private entities.

"Once you start to lose control of the inputs to public policy, I think you've got to stop and say, 'Hold on, what am I doing here?'" she told Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

"Because it's not just the data, it's also how that data may be analyzed or manipulated by technology companies doing things with algorithms, machine learning."

Tech companies can translate data how they want, she says, and it's dangerous for governments to be dependent on them.

It's true that people already give their data to companies like Google and Facebook in exchange for convenience and free services, Wylie says, but she adds that's fundamentally different from tech companies' ability to gather our data as we enter public spaces.

Now is a critical time to stop and ask what we want to commodify about our lives and who gets to do that.- Bianca Wylie, co-founder of Tech Reset Canada

Currently, the public is made aware of surveillance in public through signage, Wylie says. She wonders how that would work in spaces where there are multiple forms of surveillance taking place simultaneously.

"Can you imagine if you had twenty five different signs in every place and then you had to decide how to navigate that space?"

"Should we have to be thinking about consent in public space like this?"

A vision image of the new Toronto neighbourhood published by Sidewalk Labs. (Sidewalk Labs)

Wylie says our current laws only consider the ability of each individual to consent to the collection of their data, and they fail to address how consent could be given collectively.

For wealthy residents in high-tech neighbourhoods, more surveillance may mean convenience, Wylie says, but not everyone experiences surveillance the same way due to their race and social status.

Ultimately, when it comes to data collection, what we might choose for ourselves individually may be different from what we want for society as a whole, she adds.

"Now is a critical time to stop and ask what we want to commodify about our lives and who gets to do that."