Sidewalk Labs addresses privacy concerns at first public roundtable meeting

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CPC had the pleasure of attending the first public roundtable meeting for the Sidewalk Toronto project, an ambitious, tech-forward community planned for the city’s east waterfront.

There were displays set up with Sidewalk Toronto representatives prepared to discuss the project or answer any questions, tables for the public to sit and discuss challenges and opportunities, and an hour long presentation with a brief Q&A.

Sidewalk Labs’ chief policy officer, Rohit (Rit) Aggarwala, presented an array of Sidewalk Toronto objectives from mobility to sustainability, and housing affordability. One of the most sensitive topics among the attendees was how privacy was being managed.

Based on the murmuring from the crowd and some of the comments on post-it notes stuck to the boards around the room, many Torontonians are concerned about their private data being collected and sold to large corporations.

Aggarwala assured the crowd that personal data would not be sold for profit. He even highlighted a few ways Sidewalk Labs plans to eventually make money from developing the community.

One way is the traditional route of real estate investment - they certainly have the means to acquire some prime waterfront property as a company owned by Alphabet. Also, they plan to use the project as a testing ground for new urban-focused technology. If they can make something work in Toronto, it can be sold to a different city, region, or government.

He also brought up the philosophy of “Privacy by Design.” This means that your privacy is top of mind from the onset. Sidewalk Labs, Waterfront Toronto, and the City of Toronto are considering how to manage the data collected, how to protect it, and what data is collected.

And the data that’s being collected must benefit the community and urban design, Aggarwala explained. If the data does not help improve the urban experience for everyone, then the data will not be considered valuable.

It’s important to remember that Sidewalk Labs is not Google. Everyone keeps making ties to Google because they’re both Alphabet companies and it makes for a good headline, but Google is just a sister company. If you’re concerned about Google using your search history and private information for advertising purposes, then we hate to break it to you - that’s already happening. You don’t need to be in a smart-city style neighbourhood to have your “private” data collected.  

Ubiquitous connectivity is essential to the success of Sidewalk Toronto. Sensors will monitor the physical environment and how we use it, there will be APIs that inspire and encourage the developer community to make city improvements, and there will also be a portal service for residents.

Building a true smart city on a city scale is currently out of reach, but projects like Sidewalk Toronto essentially make a pocket of Toronto a testing ground for technology that will change the way we live in cities forever.

Lucas DeClavasio