Opinion: Toronto still in the dark on Google’s digital plans for smart city

Cameras, remote sensing and other monitoring devices would generate fine-grained data on our public activities – much of it personal and potentially lucrative to others

Waterfront Toronto’s board made the right decision to postpone a meeting at which it was expected to give Sidewalk Labs the go-ahead for its controversial “smart city” Quayside project. A decision has been put off until late June.

Hopefully, this provides an opportunity to begin reconsidering the project in light of the effects the unfolding coronavirus disaster will have on urban development priorities.

Even after 30 months of project planning, there are many unanswered questions about an adequate digital governance framework for guiding the development of a neighbourhood that would be, in the words of former Alphabet CEO Eric Schmidt, “built from the internet up.”

Central to Sidewalk’s digital vision for Quayside is algorithmic management based on a ubiquitous sensor network. Cameras, remote sensing methods and a range of other monitoring devices would continuously generate fine-grained data about all facets of public and even private activities – much of it personal and much of it potentially lucrative to others. While many of the proposals may be beneficial, taken together they will result in a significant increase in already problematic mass surveillance.

Since the project announcement in October 2017, Torontonians have asked a host of thorny questions about data rights, ownership and the role of Sidewalk Labs parent companies Google/Alphabet. Waterfront Toronto’s Digital Strategy Advisory Panel have echoed these concerns in public sessions and reports.

Waterfront Toronto recently conducted a “technical evaluation” of Sidewalk’s specific proposals. The great majority of its digital “solutions” involve collecting personal information, but none have been subjected to in-depth review from a digital policy perspective. For example, the technical evaluation did not address the basic question, “Is the collection of personal information necessary?” Not all solutions comply with this standard data minimization principle, found in every Canadian privacy law.

In the absence of an in-depth evaluation of Sidewalk’s digital proposals, Waterfront Toronto is relying mainly on the company’s promise – hard to enforce – to comply with yet to be developed laws and regulations. 

In effect, Waterfront Toronto is preparing to punt the difficult digital governance issues past its board.

Because so much of the key documentation on which the board will base its decision is still under wraps, Waterfront Toronto is leaving Torontonians in the dark and has provided them with little opportunity to contribute to the outcome.

There are only two possibilities being discussed publicly: approval or rejection of the project. But another approach is worth considering. Waterfront Toronto should separate Sidewalk’s digital proposals from the Quayside plan and postpone its approval until after an adequately robust digital governance framework has been established for their evaluation.

Even if Waterfront Toronto decides not to revise the project schedule in response to the unprecedented COVID-19 disruption, holding off approval of the digital elements in Sidewalk’s proposal won’t necessarily delay the project. Under the most optimistic construction schedule, the installation of digital equipment would not begin before 2024.

No one has offered a compelling argument for why Sidewalk’s massive proposal needs approval in its entirety at this point. So why rush to approve a plan that hasn’t seen the light of day, let alone received public scrutiny made more urgent by the crisis?

Putting Sidewalk’s digital proposals on their own track would provide a model for digital infrastructure building in cities worldwide.   

Andrew Clement is an emeritus professor and surveillance researcher in the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto, and a member of Waterfront Toronto’s Digital Strategy Advisory Panel. The views expressed here are his own.


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