Data Privacy and Opportunity Lost in Toronto

Noah Lombardini-Parker

May 8, 2020

Data Privacy Op ed

Amidst the daily media accounts of deepfakes, cyberattacks, identity theft, misinformation campaigns, and the lot – protecting ourselves from this wave of digital sabotage takes everything in our power.  Keeping oneself completely “off the grid” may offer the sturdiest defense against this onslaught of privacy creep. Naturally, this notion expands from the individual as we look at how personal privacy concerns impact our communities as a whole. As technological innovation broadens and with it, our concern for personal privacy expands, we must stop to ask ourselves - what is the ethical impact of NOT sharing our data?

Sidewalk Labs (a subsidiary of Alphabet, the parent company of Google) and their proposed project in Toronto, is a great example. With the goal of becoming a futuristic blueprint for modernizing cities across the globe, the company had plans to monitor pedestrian movement, traffic, weather, building occupancy, pollution and sewage to create a 190 acre hyper-efficient neighborhood5. These efforts planned to tackle issues such as job creation, affordable housing, and environmental sustainability by leveraging data collection to design the smartest city possible5. However, questions arose among Toronto’s public around Sidewalk Labs’ data collection techniques and who would ultimately have access to the data. Critics of the project contested “the virtual world has been something we opt into…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. There’s no opting out of public space, or government services, for which Sidewalk Labs appears eager to provide an IT platform”2. Late last year, efforts to minimize the scope of the plan were successful, as the project was scaled back to a twelve acre plot of land in Quayside3. Additionally, Waterfront Toronto gained full control of data governance around the project3. On May 6th, Sidewalk Labs announced that it is completely abandoning the project, citing “economic turmoil” from the Coronavirus pandemic with no plans to continue the project at a future date. In the announcement, chief executive of Sidewalk Labs, Dan Doctoroff, stated “It has become too difficult to make the 12-acre project financially viable without sacrificing core parts of the plan we had developed together with Waterfront Toronto to build a truly inclusive, sustainable community”1. In reality, it seems that the COVID-19 pandemic was merely the final straw to break the back of a project already facing strong opposition from the concerned citizens and public officials of Toronto.

While concerns around data security are certainly valid, the opposition to this plan which led to its demise feels like a missed opportunity. More sinister even, it feels like an unethical decision to promote data security over the greater societal benefits the project aimed to address. We must stop and consider what was lost here – potential jobs for the unemployed, affordable housing for those who cannot afford the rising costs of living, and most importantly, an environmentally sustainable blueprint for cities of the future. Will our fearmongering over data governance continue to hinder our ability to develop transformative technologies to save our planet? How can tech giants like Alphabet gain the trust of urban activists and regulators to harness the potentially world-saving technologies they desperately want to deploy? The answer, as it generally always is, seems to be some form of compromise between the two sides. While big tech must take measures to gain the public’s trust over privacy concerns, we must also be mindful of what was lost in Toronto.

Works Cited:

[1] Austen, Ian and Wakabayashi, Daisuke. "Google Sibling Abandons Ambitious City of the Future in Toronto". The New York Times. May 7,2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/07/world/americas/google-toronto-sidewalk-labs-abandoned.html

[2] Barth, Brian. "The Fight Against Google's Smart City". The Washington Post. August 8, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/theworldpost/wp/2018/08/08/sidewalk-labs/

[3] DeChamps, Tara. "Google Sister Company Agrees to Scale Back Controversial Toronto Project". The Guardian. October 31, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2019/oct/31/google-sidewalk-labs-toronto-neighbourhood-scale-back

[4] Kirkwood, Isabelle. "Waterfront Toronto Endorses Most Sidewalk Labs Innovations, As Expert Panel Highlights Challenges". Betakit. February 27, 2020. https://betakit.com/waterfront-toronto-endorses-most-sidewalk-labs-innovations-as-expert-panel-highlights-challenges/

[5] Taylor, Emily. "Sidewalk Toronto". https://www.sidewalktoronto.ca/

[6] Vincent, Donovan. "Waterfront Toronto Advisory Panel Still Has Concerns About Sidewalk Labs' Data Collection, New Report Says". The Star. February 26, 2020. https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2020/02/26/waterfront-toronto-advisory-panel-still-has-concerns-about-sidewalk-labs-data-collection-new-report-says.html

[7] Wray, Sarah "Sidewalk Labs Urged to Justify Digital Solutions". Smart Cities World. February 27, 2020. https://www.smartcitiesworld.net/news/news/sidewalk-labs-urged-to-justify-digital-solutions-5069