Sidewalk Labs, which is owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet, has proposed a high-tech ‘smart city’ community, after being commissioned in October 2017 to revitalise Toronto’s rundown waterfront. The proposed development would entail a myriad of sensors embedded in the infrastructure of several blocks of apartments, offices, shops, and a school on a 12-acre site, which would be the first step toward an eventual 800-acre development. Everything from street lights, stretches of pavement, heated roads to melt ice and snow on contact, and sensors to monitor traffic and pedestrians would be wired in.
Considering the series of privacy scandals at Google and Facebook, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) is suing the Canadian, local, and provincial governments over the invasion of privacy the smart city project would entail. A spokesman for Canada's infrastructure minister had said the development would be pursued in and "ethical and accountable" way but CCLA Executive Director Michael Bryant said, "Scientists profit from your behavioural data. Canada, Toronto, you are the lab rats." In a meeting two weeks ago, Sidewalk Labs admitted that although it is committed to protecting user identity, other businesses in the project may not be.
Critics of the project have complained since its inception that those behind it have shared few details about their plans and given little explanation for how data will be collected, kept, accessed, and protected. Last summer, an IBM security expert warned that cyber criminals could easily hack European cities in devastating attacks that could "cause loss of life".
Senior privacy expert and former Ontario privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian recently quit the project saying that her privacy recommendations were ignored. She resigned over concerns that the "treasure trove" of data collected in the CAD $40 million smart city project could identify individuals and leave them open to a cyber attack. Ms. Cavoukian had worked on a privacy by design framework for the project to make sure that citizens' personal data would be protected and said “I felt I had no choice because I had been told by Sidewalk Labs that all of the data collected will be de-identified at source. I imagined us creating a Smart City of Privacy, as opposed to a Smart City of Surveillance.”
TechGirls Canada Founder Saadia Muzaffar also stepped down from her role on the Waterfront Toronto Digital Strategy Advisory panel citing "deep dismay" and “profound concern” that it had evaded questions about privacy and concerns over vulnerabilities that could be exploited by cyber criminals, which have become more widespread. In a letter dated October 4 to Waterfront Toronto and her fellow panel members, Ms. Muzaffar said her decision is due to project-backer Waterfront Toronto showing “apathy and a lack of leadership regarding shaky public trust” and dodging questions around privacy and intellectual property, including at a series of roundtables the organization has held to consult the public. “I have yet to see evidence that Waterfront Toronto shares the urgency and concern that has been raised in multiple for a. The most recent roundtable in August displayed a blatant disregard for resident concerns about data and digital infrastructure. Time was spent instead talking about buildings made out of wood and the width of one-way streets, things no one has contested or expressed material concern for in this entire process,” Ms. Muzaffar wrote.
Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System executive John Ruffolo has also resigned. Former BlackBerry chief executive Jim Balsillie called the project "a colonising experiment in surveillance capitalism" earlier this month and accused it of making irreversible decisions that will have major negative effect on all Canadians.