Google’s Sidewalk Lab smart city project threatens privacy and human rights: Amnesty Intl, CA says

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Sidewalk Toronto, a joint venture between Sidewalk Labs, which is owned by Google parent company Alphabet Inc., and Waterfront Toronto, is proposing a high-tech neighbourhood called Quayside for the city’s eastern waterfront.

In March 2017, Waterfront Toronto had shared a Request for proposal for this project with the Sidewalk Labs team. It ultimately got approval by Oct 2017 and is currently led by Eric Schmidt, Alphabet Inc CEO and Daniel Doctoroff, Sidewalk Labs CEO.

As per reports from Daneilla Barreto, a digital activism coordinator for Amnesty International Canada, the project will normalize the mass surveillance and is a direct threat to human rights.


The 12-acre smart city, which will be located between East Bayfront and the Port Lands, promises to tackle the social and policy challenges affecting Toronto: affordable housing, traffic congestion and the impacts of climate change. Imagine self-driving vehicles shuttling you around a 24/7 neighbourhood featuring low-cost, modular buildings that easily switch uses based on market demand. Picture buildings heated or cooled by a thermal grid that doesn’t rely on fossil fuels, or garbage collection by industrial robots. Underpinning all of this is a network of sensors and other connected technology that will monitor and track environmental and human behavioural data.

That last part about tracking human data has sparked concerns. Much ink has been spilled in the press about privacy protections and the issue has been raised repeatedly by citizens in two of four recent community consultations held by Sidewalk Toronto.

They have proposed to build the waterfront neighbourhood from scratch, embed sensors and cameras throughout and effectively create a “digital layer”. This digital layer may result monitoring actions of individuals and collection of their data.

In the Responsible Data Use Policy Framework released last year, the Sidewalk Toronto team made a number of commitments with regard to privacy, such as not selling personal information to third parties or using it for advertising purposes.

Daneilla further argues that privacy was declared a human right and is protected under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948.

However, in the Sidewalk Labs conversation, privacy has been framed as a purely digital tech issue. Debates have focused on questions of data access, who owns it, how will it be used, where it should all be stored and what should be collected.

In other words it will collect the minutest information of an individual’s everyday living. For example, track what medical offices they enter, what locations they frequent and who their visitors are, in turn giving away clues to physical or mental health conditions, immigration status, whether if an individual is involved in any kind of sex work, their sexual orientation or gender identity or, the kind of political views they might hold.

It will further affect their health status, employment, where they are allowed to live, or where they can travel further down the line.

All of these raise a question: Do citizens want their data to be collected at this scale at all? And this conversation remains long overdue.

Not all communities have agreed to participate in this initiative as marginalized and racialized communities will be affected most by surveillance.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) has threatened to sue Sidewalk Toronto project, arguing that privacy protections should be spelled out before the project proceeds. Toronto’s Mayor John Tory showed least amount of interest in addressing these concerns during a panel on tech investment in Canada at South by Southwest (SXSW) on March 10. Tory was present in the event to promote the city as a go-to tech hub while inviting the international audience at SXSW at the other industry events.

Last October, Saadia Muzaffar announced her resignation from Waterfront Toronto’s Digital Strategy Advisory Panel. “Waterfront Toronto’s apathy and utter lack of leadership regarding shaky public trust and social license has been astounding,” the author and founder of TechGirls Canada said in her resignation letter.

Later that month, Dr. Ann Cavoukian, a privacy expert and consultant for Sidewalk Labs, put her resignation too. As she wanted all data collection to be anonymized or “de-identified” at the source, protecting the privacy of citizens.

Why big tech really want your data?

Data can be termed as a rich resource or the “new oil” in other words. As it can be mined in a number of ways, from licensing it for commercial purposes to making it open to the public and freely shareable.  Apparently like oil, data has the power to create class warfare, permitting those who own it to control the agenda and those who don’t to be left at their mercy.

With the flow of data now contributing more to world GDP than the flow of physical goods, there’s a lot at stake for the different players. It can benefit in different ways as for the corporate, it is the primary beneficiaries of personal data, monetizing it through advertising, marketing and sales. For example, Facebook for past 2 to 3 years has repeatedly come under the radar for violating user privacy and mishandling data.

For the government, data may help in public good, to improve quality of life for citizens via data–driven design and policies. But in some cases minorities and poor are highly impacted by the privacy harms caused due to mass surveillance, discriminatory algorithms among other data driven technological applications. Also public and private dissent can be discouraged via mass surveillance thus curtailing freedom of speech and expression.

As per NY Times report, low-income Americans have experienced a long history of disproportionate surveillance, the poor bear the burden of both ends of the spectrum of privacy harms; are subject to greater suspicion and monitoring while applying for government benefits and live in heavily policed neighborhoods. In some cases they also lose out on education and job opportunities.

In more promising news, today the Oakland Privacy Advisory Commission released 2 key documents one on the Oakland privacy principles and the other on ban on facial recognition tech.

They have given emphasis to privacy in the framework and mentioned that, “Privacy is a fundamental human right, a California state right, and instrumental to Oaklanders’ safety, health, security, and access to city services. We seek to safeguard the privacy of every Oakland resident in order to promote fairness and protect civil liberties across all of Oakland’s diverse communities.

Safety will be paramount for smart city initiatives, such as Sidewalk Toronto. But we need more Oakland like laws and policies that protect and support privacy and human rights. One where we are able to use technology in a safe way and things aren’t happening that we didn’t consent to.

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Being a Senior Content Marketing Editor at Packt Publishing, I handle vast array of content in the tech space ranging from Data science, Web development, Programming, Cloud & Networking, IoT, Security and Game development. With prior experience and understanding of Marketing I aspire to grow leaps and bounds in the Content & Digital Marketing field. On the personal front I am an ambivert and love to read inspiring articles and books on life and in general.