Privacy in a smart neighbourhood like Sidewalk Toronto

Sidewalk Toronto 4.jpg

It seems like everyone is talking about Sidewalk Toronto, the new smart neighbourhood planned for Toronto’s eastern waterfront. Alphabet’s firm Sidewalk Labs has partnered with Waterfront Toronto to develop the tech-forward community.

Any high-tech system relies on the transferring, collecting, and analysis of data, and whenever data enters the conversation, privacy issues arise. And rightfully so, it’s fair for people to value their privacy, even in the age of the smartphone.

In Sidewalk Labs’ RFP response, they say, “Sidewalk will establish an unparalleled level of trust around data use by engaging with independent privacy experts and community stakeholders to advise on protections, transparency, and controls. For example, Ann Cavoukian, former Ontario Information and Privacy Commissioner and now Executive Director of the Privacy and Big Data Institute at Ryerson University, has agreed to serve on an advisory board if Sidewalk is selected for Quayside.”

What everyone needs to understand is that not all data is personal or private. Governments have been collecting movement and environmental data for centuries in order to improve infrastructure and urban design. It’s just being done digitally now in a more efficient way.

These are a few of the sensors that Sidewalk plans to deploy:

1) Air quality sensors (carbon monoxide, particulate matter, sulfur dioxide)

2) Noise level sensors (noise generated by vehicles, construction, human activity)

3) Radar, laser rangefinding, and computer vision (flow of vehicles, cyclists, pedestrians, state of the urban environment)

4) Hyperlocal weather (temperature, wind speed, humidity)

With regards to personal data, Sidewalk has stated that they will never “compromise user privacy.” But what is the definition of “compromise” in this context? If it means using personal data to create better technologies and improve urban design which directly leads to millions of dollars in profit for private companies, then yes, your data will be “compromised.”

But there has to be a balance. You can’t expect better smart services and products and demand that your data be ignored. Your phone use, Internet use, and city use will guide the development of Sidewalk Toronto and hopefully the project becomes a leading example on how to build a smart city.

Sidewalk adds, “The platform must also allow people to see and understand how their data are used, and be able to control those uses. Platforms can only flourish if their users trust and value them— and that trust comes from clear, consistent, and well-enforced policies for handling of personal information.”

Not only should the data be open to the public,  the new connectivity infrastructure should be a public asset that is openly accessible for all service providers to compete to deliver the services. 

This end-to-end open environment will drive innovation, improve services, and lower costs over time, whereas allowing for proprietary ownership of the data and/or connectivity will stifle innovation and competition and limit access which is not in the public interest. 

Of course, no one will know how our personal data is being used until the project is underway and privacy policies are actually created. It’s important for Waterfront Toronto and the City of Toronto to remain in control with the development of Sidewalk Toronto. As much as we are looking forward to the next phase of smart cities, it is crucial that local government puts the public first in all decision making.

With that in mind, the first community meeting is on November 1st at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts. If you’re concerned about privacy, then you should get involved! (The event is already full, but you can still sign up for the waitlist)