The “Smart City” Quayside project in Toronto, Canada continues to receive criticism from privacy advocates as well as current and former members of the project.
Quayside is a smart city located on 12 acres of waterfront property southeast of downtown Toronto, Canada. The city represents a joint effort by the Canadian government agency Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs, which is owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc. Sidewalk Labs claims Quayside will solve the problems of traffic congestion, rising home prices and environmental pollution.
There are even plans for housing developments and a school within the smart city. However, Quayside has consistently faced pushback due to a failure to build-in the necessary privacy protections.
The Guardian recently reported that US venture capitalist Roger McNamee warned that tech companies like Google cannot be trusted to safely manage the data they collect on residents. McNamee wrote to Toronto’s city council warning them that Quayside is “the most highly evolved version to date of” something called “surveillance capitalism.” McNamee told the council that Google will use “algorithms to nudge human behavior” in ways that “favor its business.” McNamee is co-founder of Silver Lake Partners, one of the world’s largest technology investors and one of the early investors in Google and Facebook.
No matter what Google is offering, the value to Toronto cannot possibly approach the value your city is giving up. It is a dystopian vision that has no place in a democratic society.
McNamee has not been the only voice warning about the dangers of the Quayside project. The Guardian also notes that Jim Balsille, co-founder of BlackBerry maker Research in Motion, called the project “a colonizing experiment in surveillance capitalism attempting to bulldoze important urban, civic and political issues.”
At least two officials involved in the project have also resigned. Saadia Muzaffar resigned from Waterfront Toronto, the advisory panel responsible for Quayside, after the board showed “apathy and a lack of leadership regarding shaky public trust.”
Recently, Ann Cavoukian, one of Canada’s leading privacy experts and Ontario’s former privacy commissioner, became the latest person to resign from the project. Cavoukian was brought on by Sidewalk Toronto as a consultant to help install a “privacy by design” framework. She was initially told that all data collected from residents would be deleted and rendered unidentifiable. She later learned that third parties would be able to access identifiable information gathered at Quayside and decided to resign.
“I imagined us creating a Smart City of Privacy, as opposed to a Smart City of Surveillance,” Cavoukian wrote in her resignation letter.
Despite the many concerns and vocal opponents, Sidewalk Labs has released their master plan for Quayside, including plans to expand the project. The Toronto Star reports that Sidewalk Labs is calling for “an independent, government-sanctioned data trust to establish responsible data-use guidelines, approve and oversee proposed collections of urban data, make publicly accessible data that could be considered a public asset and improve transparency.” Sidewalk has claimed they will not sell personal data gathered as part of the smart city project and will not use personal information for advertising purposes.
Beyond the health and privacy concerns related to the project, it’s important to consider what the roll-out of this technology means for someone who does not consent to the technology. Residents cannot simply go in their homes or easily opt out of it, as it is everywhere. Julie Di Lorenzo, a real estate developer who left Waterfront’s board in July, explained to the AP that she wanted to know if those who didn’t opt-in would be told that they can’t live there.
As one Toronto journalist wrote, “It’s one thing to willingly install Alexa in your home. It’s another when publicly owned infrastructure—streets, bridges, parks and plazas—is Alexa, so to speak.”
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