Privacy expert raises concerns over tech firm’s Waterfront plans
For one year, privacy expert Ann Cavoukian worked as a consultant for Sidewalk Labs, until what she says was a broken promise on removing personal information from data led to her exit.
“They went back on their word,” said Cavoukian, who now works as a privacy expert for Waterfront Toronto, the organization that will determine if the Sidewalk Labs project should move forward. “As soon as I heard that they would not be enforcing the de-identification of data at the source, I knew I could not work with them any longer.”
De-identification is a process that strips personal identifying information from collected data. While Sidewalk Labs initially promised they would de-identify all data for its smart city project, the company admitted in an October 2018 meeting that it could not guarantee third parties would do the same. Cavoukian resigned immediately and is now one of many academics who have criticized Sidewalk Labs’ proposal for a smart city in Toronto.
Two years ago, Sidewalk Labs — a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc., which also owns Google — announced its vision for a smart city to be developed in Toronto’s Quayside neighbourhood. Working with Waterfront Toronto, the company revealed a plan that would feature heated sidewalks, autonomous vehicles, real-time traffic sensors and a light rail expansion, among other tech innovations. The “city within a city” would have buildings sustainably built out of timber, affordable housing and create thousands of new jobs, according to its website.
But Sidewalk Labs has repeatedly come under fire for what it wants in return for its proposal that will use a 4.8-hectare area as a testing ground — namely, your data.
“Sidewalk is proposing, in some ways, an all-singing, all-dancing, fully integrated system and that raises a whole set of new concerns because there’s now a much wider scope of possible use and abuse,” said University of Toronto professor emeritus and privacy researcher Andrew Clement.
Clement was one of two speakers at a January panel hosted by Ryerson’s Centre for Free Expression discussing privacy issues related to the Sidewalk Toronto project. Clement was joined by Natasha Tusikov, an assistant professor at York University who specializes in crime, regulation and technology. The pair were moderated by Brenda MacPhail, the director of privacy, technology and surveillance project for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.
The panel raised the same topic of data ownership as a key concern. Although it has been several years since the initial October 2017 announcement of Sidewalk Toronto, the company is still grappling with issues surrounding the collection of data, such as who owns it and what they will do with it. For Clement and Tusikov, the anonymization of data is still not enough.
“Something Sidewalk Labs deliberately left unanswered is the idea that no harm can ever come from de-identified information,” said Tusikov, adding that there are indications that the developed algorithms have “all kinds” of discrimination and bias baked into them.
However, Cavoukian challenges this claim, stating that the de-identification of data is a way to collect information safely without any indicators of personal information.
Along with the debate on de-identified data, the panel also touched on the personal information that we share already. “Quayside and Sidewalk are merely extending the existing sensors that are already out there but are not identifiable as such. We don’t talk about them or think about them,” said Clement.
These sensors range from public CCTV cameras capturing you without your explicit consent to common apps and smart devices, like Siri and Alexa.
“I always think it’s pretty fascinating when you’re talking about this absurd random thing and the next day, that ad comes up on Instagram,” said Jared Klein, a Chang School student. “Everyone’s freaked out about it, but at the end of the day, no one’s deleting these apps.”
Cavoukian, the former Ontario privacy commissioner, said companies have a responsibility to ensure their customers know how their data is being used and that information about personal data should be easy to understand.
“For a lot of young people and people in general, it’s so much easier to just click ‘accept’ without going through all the terms and conditions that apps have,” said Cavoukian. “The onus should be on companies themselves to make sure users know what they’re agreeing to and have the ability to opt out.”
According to Cavoukian, every person should have control over their personal information because “privacy means freedom and that is the most important thing in a democracy.”
After several extensions, the new deadline for Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs to decide on the Sidewalk Toronto proposal is May 20.