Google's partner company Sidewalk Labs just overcame a major hurdle. After much controversy over the past two years, the Waterfront Toronto board just approved its draft plan for an experimental smart city to move forward in Toronto's Quayside district.

Sidewalk Labs is owned by Alphabet, Google's parent company. It has set a vision for "the most innovative district in the world" that's sustainable, affordable, and high-tech.

But there's one big catch: Data-collecting sensors would be integrated into its buildings, vehicles, sidewalks, and streets, raising major concerns about the privacy of anyone who lives or passes through the neighborhood.

With tech embedded throughout, people's every move will be tracked using sensors. How Sidewalk Labs will handle that data is still largely an open question. 

What Sidewalk Labs' smart city could look like. 

Imagine a city with no traffic. Its public transit and cycling infrastructure are so efficient, you never need to own a car. It's climate positive, with 89 percent fewer carbon emissions than most cities. The city is so smart that its streets and sidewalks can adapt seamlessly to how people move about. There's fast, free Wi-Fi everywhere. It's an urban utopia.

But then, the dark side. As you blissfully move throughout this city--getting in and out of automated taxis, shopping in retail stores, walking down its sidewalks--cameras and sensors track your every single move. There's no way to be truly anonymous or to opt out of your data being collected. 

Sidewalk Labs made concessions to get this plan approved.

For this initial draft plan approval, Sidewalk Labs had to make a few major adjustments to their original proposal. The scope was reduced from 190 aces to 12 acres, at least to start. Sidewalk Labs will no longer be the lead developer, and instead has acquiesced to bringing partner developers onto the project. 

The data collection and privacy issue has been a huge part of the discussion, too. Privacy expert Dr. Ann Cavoukian resigned from the project last year when she discovered all data collected would not be anonymized.

"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," she told Global News last fall. 

What Sidewalk Labs will do with the data. 

If the smart city is developed, all this data is going to be collected. That part is certain. But where does that data go and how will it be protected? 

Originally, Sidewalk Labs had proposed setting up an independent "Urban Data Trust," which would oversee and protect all data collected. The draft plan the Waterfront Toronto Board unanimously approved eliminated this trust. 

According to an open letter written by the board's chair, Stephen Diamond, "Sidewalk Labs agreed that all personal information will be stored in Canada.... It will comply with all existing and future legislative and regulatory frameworks."

Not a done deal yet. 

"Let me be clear: this is not a done deal," board chair Diamond said in an open letter. "The public have my assurance that there will be more opportunities to have its say and inform the evaluation and any subsequent decisions by Waterfront Toronto and its Board."

Though Waterfront Toronto's Board of Directors unanimously approved to proceed, there is still a formal evaluation process that must take place. According to the open letter, this will happen in the coming months. Public input will also be considered. Waterfront Toronto's board will make a final decision by March 31, 2020.

Published on: Nov 5, 2019
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