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Sidewalk Labs’s ambitious smart city plans now face a legal battle

A Canadian civil liberties group is taking aim at all three tiers of government for allegedly allowing Sidewalk Labs to make decisions about citizens’ privacy in Toronto.

Sidewalk Labs’s ambitious smart city plans now face a legal battle
[Image: Heatherwick Studio/courtesy Sidewalk Labs]

A civil liberties group in Canada is suing three tiers of government over potential privacy issues posed by Sidewalk Labs’s plan to develop a 12-acre smart city in Toronto, which will be approved or denied later this summer. The lawsuit aims to nullify the partnership that Sidewalk Labs, Google’s sibling company, has with the taxpayer-funded organization Waterfront Toronto. (Waterfront Toronto was created jointly by the federal, provincial, and municipal governments.) The Canadian Civil Liberties Association claims that Waterfront Toronto, let alone Sidewalk Labs, doesn’t have the jurisdiction to make rules about people’s privacy.

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The government “sold out our constitutional rights to freedom from surveillance and sold it to the global surveillance mammoth of behavioral data collection: Google,” said Michael Bryant, the executive director and general counsel of the CCLA, in a press conference.  The Canadian Civil Liberties Association joined with Toronto resident Lester Brown, who lives next to the Quayside neighborhood that Sidewalk Labs is proposing to develop, in suing the government. “Canada, Toronto, you are the lab rats in Google’s Sidewalk Lab,” Bryant said. “Our job at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association is to say to all three levels of government that Canadians should not be Google’s lab rat. This lab needs to be shut down and reset.”

[Image: courtesy Sidewalk Toronto]
Sidewalk Labs issued a statement, disputing the premise. “Sidewalk Labs is strongly committed to the protection and privacy of urban data,” the statement read. “In fact, we’ve been clear in our belief that decisions about the collection and use of urban data should be up to an independent data trust, which we are proposing for the Quayside project. This organization would be run by an independent third party in partnership with the government and ensure urban data is only used in ways that benefit the community, protect privacy, and spur innovation and investment. This independent body would have full oversight over Quayside. Sidewalk Labs fully supports a robust and healthy discussion regarding privacy, data ownership, and governance. But this debate must be rooted in fact, not fiction and fear-mongering.”

Longstanding concerns about privacy

Since the project’s inception, critics–including Jim Balsillie, the former co-CEO of Blackberry–have been raising the alarm about potential risks to people’s privacy. Ann Cavoukian, the former Information and Privacy Commissioner for the Canadian province of Ontario who joined the project early, quit in October 2018. The reason? Sidewalk Labs had decided not to require that all data collected by third parties in the development be instantly de-identified at the source, which would mean that sensitive data like people’s faces or license plates could still potentially be used for corporate profit. “I knew the smart city of privacy wasn’t going to happen,” she says. “That’s why I resigned: I said, I can’t go along with it.”

[Image: courtesy Sidewalk Toronto]
Not helping matters: Sidewalk Labs’s plans have been secretive, with little space for public comment (though the organization does regularly open its office to the public to garner feedback). “Citizens in the area don’t feel that they’ve been consulted appropriately,” Cavoukian says. “They feel they should sign off on some of these futuristic models that are emanating from Sidewalk Labs. So I think they’re going to get a lot of resistance.”

The resistance

This lawsuit is the first big step in that resistance, though the CCLA is choosing to target the government rather than Sidewalk Labs. Bryant’s argument is based on how Waterfront Toronto was formed. The organization was jointly created by the governments of Canada, Ontario, and the city of Toronto–but Bryant is arguing that the government never gave Waterfront Toronto the jurisdiction to decide what people’s privacy rights should be. That means that Waterfront Toronto does not have the authority to outsource people’s privacy rights to Sidewalk Labs, the suit alleges. Bryant compares the governments’ decision to the Boeing 737 plane crashes, which may have occurred in part because the Federal Aviation Administration asked Boeing to be in charge of its own safety certification.

“The problem is less that Google and its siblings want the lab in the first place, the problem is that Waterfront Toronto and our governments let this happen,” Bryant said. “…they [struck] a deal where they outsourced our privacy rights and the supervision of our privacy rights and our surveillance to the very company that’s doing the surveillance.”

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The next steps

For the past year, Sidewalk Labs has been preparing a Master Innovation and Development Plan, which will lay out its formal proposal for the development of the Quayside area. In early summer, the company will present the plan to Waterfront Toronto’s board, which will either approve or deny it. Bryant’s team at CCLA is aiming to push its lawsuit forward before this decision is made.

Waterfront Toronto insists that the lawsuit is baseless because Sidewalk Labs’s plan is not yet finalized. “Waterfront Toronto shares the [a]pplicant’s interest in ensuring robust protection for privacy at Quayside,” the organization said in a statement. “At this point Waterfront Toronto has not received a plan from Sidewalk Labs, its Innovation and Funding Partner for Quayside. Therefore, none of the claims in the in the CCLA [a]pplication can be assessed yet because we have not yet received or considered Sidewalk Labs’ Master Innovation and Development Plan.” The organization’s chief development officer, Meg Davis, also derided CCLA for “diverting resources to a court case.”

Whatever the outcome of the lawsuit, the larger question of what constitutes a “private” smart city may remain unresolved. Cavoukian, the privacy expert who quit the Quayside project in October, says she originally saw an opportunity to create a new model for a smart city in contrast to the surveillance-based smart cities in China. She still hopes that Waterfront Toronto will act in citizens’ best interest when it comes to privacy. “If I was still involved, I’d want more decentralized models of data where the individual could truly retain control of the data,” she says, citing a new, privacy-centric model from the web’s father, Tim Berners-Lee, to decentralize the web and take back control from the corporations that run it.

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is the deputy editor of Fast Company's technology section. Email her at kschwab@fastcompany.com and follow her on Twitter @kschwabable

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