Critics urge Toronto to abandon plans for a ‘Google smart city’ amid concerns over privacy 


Beset by public criticism, a smart city development planned for Toronto’s waterfront faces fresh condemnation from prominent business people over privacy issues.

Residents of the city had previously started the #BlockSidewalk movement in reaction to the opaqueness of Google-stablemate Sidewalk Labs’ planning to date.

This collected backlash follows a recent lawsuit by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, who want the project halted over concerns of ‘surveillance capitalism’.

The quayside project is a concept from Sidewalk Labs, which is owned by Google parent company Alphabet.

The plan is to revitalise a run-down stretch of Toronto’s waterfront, crafting it into the most technologically advanced and data-driven district in any of the world’s cities.

However, resistance to the project has been growing in the form of a public campaign, a lawsuit, and prominent resignations — with the firm having failed to assuage concerns it will not abuse data gathered by the smart city.

This backlash has now been bolstered by criticism from prominent US venture capitalist Roger McNamee, who was an early investor in Google and Facebook and a co-founder of Silver Lake Partners, one of the largest tech investors in the world.

Despite his background, Mr McNamee has grown critical of large tech firms like Google, particularly over their handling of data and related privacy concerns.

‘The smart city project on the Toronto waterfront is the most highly evolved version to date of […] surveillance capitalism’, he wrote in a letter to the Toronto city council.

‘No matter what Google is offering, the value to Toronto cannot possibly approach the value your city is giving up,’ he added. 

Declaring the Quayside project a ‘dystopian vision’ with ‘no place in a democratic society’, Mr McNamee pleaded with Toronto officials to abandon the development. 

He is concerned, he wrote, that Google will use ‘algorithms to nudge human behaviour’ within the district as to “favour its business”. 

Sidewalk Labs, however, have dismissed Mr McNamee’s allegations.

‘[He] does not seem very familiar with what Sidewalk Labs is actually proposing,’ Sidewalk Labs spokesperson Keerthana Rang told the Guardian in a statement.

She also rejected the suggestion that facial recognition technology would feature in the project.

‘As we have made clear, we believe that data collected in public space must be overseen and closely controlled by an independent and publicly accountable Data Trust, not Sidewalk Labs, Google, or any private company,’ she added.

The Toronto city council met to discuss Mr McNamee’s letter and the wider issue of the the Quayside project on June 6, 2019.

Ana Bailão, Toronto’s Deputy Mayor, told the Guardian that she viewed data and privacy as being among ‘the most significant challenges facing our society today.’

Mr McNamee is not the only businessman to come out against the development.

In 2018, Jim Balsille, co-founder of BlackBerry Ltd, expressed similar sentiments, call the project ‘a colonising experiment in surveillance capitalism attempting to bulldoze important urban, civic and political issues.’

Sidewalk Labs won a bin to be part of the development of Toronto’s waterside Port Lands area back in late 2017.  

Quayside would harbour all kinds of futuristic conveniences, according to plans, with self-driving taxis, automated waste collection, traffic lights that track pedestrian movements and pavements that automatically melt away snowfall.

Extensive monitoring would feed back information on various aspects of city life — from air quality to the frequency of park bench usage — in order to further develop the neighbourhood and make it more liveable.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and officials from Sidewalk Labs gathered 18 months ago to announce the project, amid much fanfare.

‘I don’t think they look so happy now,’ Paula Fletcher, a Toronto City Council member, told the Washington Post.

‘This big idea isn’t going exactly the way it was planned.’

A campaign to #BlockSidewalk began in February, after the Toronto Star revealed that Sidewalk Labs were contemplating financing infrastructure and transit developments on a larger part of the waterfront than previously announced.

Leaked documents suggested that, in return, the firm would seek to receive part of the profits generated by Quayside from development fees, property taxes and rising land values.

These profits had been estimated at $6 billion CAD (£3.4 billion GBP/$4.5 billion USD) over a 30 year period. 

A spokesperson from Sidewalk Labs said that the proposal had not been publicly announced because it was still under debate — but the revelations have failed to paint the company’s commitment to transparency in a good light.

‘It’s our job to remind everybody that “no” is an option and that consent is important,’ said Bianca Wylie, a leader of the #BlockSidewalk movement. 

‘The way this process has been set up was not a question of whether we should do stuff like this, but how.’

In addition, Wylie said that cities are granting too much power to big tech companies like the Alphabet-subsidiary, even as regulators struggle to rein them in.   

A spokesperson for Sidewalk Labs, Micah Lasher, acknowledged that missteps may have been made and that providing more information on Quayside’s business model and planned data-handling policies may have helped to allay concerns. 

Trying to downplay the firm’s corporate links to Google, Sidewalk Labs have said that they will not be trying to monetise the smart city’s data collection — and have proposed that such activities be managed by a data trust to prevent misuse.

However, Mr Lasher noted, the company has definitely struggled to find the best time to unveil such plans. 

‘If you share them too early, they seem half-baked and you might move away from them later,’ he said.

‘If you share them too late, you are subject to criticism for not being transparent.’ 

Waterfront Toronto advisory panel member and University of Toronto information scientist Andrew Clement said that Sidewalk labs have left many questions about the proposed data trust unanswered.

Instead of fully addressing these concerns, he added, the firm have been distracting the public with new technological concepts that the city might feature.

Sidewalk Labs had agreed to spend $50 million CAD (£28 million GBP/$37 million USD) on a year-long process of public consultations to inform their development proposal.

Plans would need to be submitted to Waterfront Toronto, the corporation that is overseeing the development of the Port Lands area on behalf of the government.

Any such proposal needs the approval of both Waterfront Toronto and several government bodies in order to go ahead.

However, plans are already months behind schedule, with Sidewalk Labs having originally been expected to present their designs in June 2018. 

Alongside delays and public backlash, privacy concerns have also encouraged the Canadian Civil Liberties Association to sue the city, federal and provincial governments to shut down the Quayside project. 

Association executive director Michael Bryant said that Canadian PM Justin Trudeau had been ‘seduced by the honey pot of Google’s sparkling brand and promises of political and economic glory.’ 

The Port Lands development scheme — and Quayside in particular — have already faced a number of embarrassments over the project’s transparency.

In October 2018, former Ontario privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian resigned from a consulting position at Sidewalk over concerns that the smart city would not be able to gain consent from everyone on whom it gathered data.

‘I imagined us creating a Smart City of Privacy, as opposed to a Smart City of Surveillance,’ she wrote in her resignation letter. 

In the same month, entrepreneur Saadia Muzaffar similarly resigned from the Quayside project advisory panel.

He criticised Waterfront Toronto for its lack of transparency and reporting that the organisation exhibited ‘apathy and a lack of leadership regarding shaky public trust’. 

This was followed in December by the revelation from the Ontario auditor general that Waterfront Toronto had given preferential treatment to Sidewalk in its selection of the Alphabet-owned firm as its partner.

The auditor general had called at the time for an increase in government oversight of the development project.

The groundswell of both public and political resistance to the project bears similarities to the pushback against Amazon’s plans to construct a secondary headquarters in New York’s Long Island City.

The unanticipated criticism of the development came from activists, union leader and lawyers, who objected to proposals that the wealthy retail firm might be granted in excess of a billion dollars in government subsidies if the plans went ahead.

Concerns were also raised over the impact that the corporate headquarters would have on New York’s already rising rents and overcrowded mass transit system. 

This opposition eventually forced Amazon to withdraw its plans, reportedly over fears that the backlash was tarnishing its wider reputation.

In Toronto, concerns have been raised that any similar situation that could cause the Alphabet subsidiary to withdraw or be forced to abandon the Quayside project would blemish Canada’s growing tech-friendly image.

‘We believe that tearing up this process midstream poses reputational risks, trade risks and legal risks,’ said Brian Kelcey, Toronto Region Board of Trade vice president of public affairs.

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