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When Sidewalk Lab's shared their vision of a smart city that would be a vital societal endeavour and "meaningful contribution towards tackling affordability and sustainability problems in urban areas" (Cecco, 2020), Torontonians may have listened in awe and anticipation. However, as the project fleshed out, many began to see that there was a thin line between Sidewalk's proposed smart city and a city of surveillance, and that the Quayside Project was leaning concerningly close to the later.

As the Privacy consultant of Sidewalk Labs prior to her departure in October of 2018, Dr Ann Cavoukian made it very clear that there was no wiggle room around enforcing the de-identification of personal data in the Quayside Project from the get-go, to ensure the creation of a smart city of privacy. Dr Cavoukian’s insistence steamed from her expert opinion that data would need to be stripped of personal data (de-identified) at its source to ensure that the personally identifiable data collected was not exploited and that Toronto’s Waterfront did not become another model of the surveillance cities of Dubai and China. (Bloomberg News, 2018)

Although Sidewalk Labs did not resist de-identification at source, they would not guarantee that they would control what other companies could do. Stating that “although they could implement the privacy rules themselves, it was not their place to impose them at large.” (Bloomberg News, 2018)

This statement made it clear that the organizations position was not one that viewed public privacy with the utmost importance. That ensuring the privacy of the pubic was not something they were insistent about enforcing, rather something that they would merely not “resist.” By failing to show that they were willing to fully undertake and enforce the complete de-identification of all personal data at source, Sidewalk Labs was violating many of the Privacy by Design Principles that Dr Cavoukian insisted upon (Cavoukian), and failed to produce a privacy Design that:

  • Set privacy as the default setting. Failing to enforce the de-identification of all data forfeits the assurance that personal data is immediately protected without action needed to ensure that the public’s privacy is intact.
  • Was proactive and preventative. By failing to enforce the de-identification of personal data at source by all parties, Sidewalk’s design would not actively prevent harm, but rather take the form of a reactive design that would have to face privacy risks that would undoubtably materialize down the line.
  • Was embedded into the core of the system overall. By not resisting data de-identification, but failing to enforce it, privacy was merely an add-on undertaken by Sidewalk labs and therefore a failure to ensure privacy was an essential component of the systems core.
  • Ensured full lifecycle protection of the personal data collected, as the privacy by design would not be embedded in the system prior to the first piece of information being collected, nor extend over the full lifecycle of the data.
  • Had a user Centric design. A design that would not enforce all parties to de-identify data meant that Sidewalk Lab’s approach did not ensure that all parties operated with the public’s interests or privacy at the centre.
  • Was fully transparent. Sidewalk’s position on enforcing de-identified data left room for other parties to use and provide information on that use, or lack thereof, as they wish. Resulting in little to no total transparency around what personal information would be collected and how it would be collected in the Quayside project.

Sidewalk Lab’s attempt at implementing a design that would hold privacy as a default setting subsequently came as a proposal of the formation of an independent Civic Data Trust (Dawson, 2018). The formation of this Trust would control this de-identified ‘Urban Data’ and make it freely and publicly available, while additionally imposing these privacy rules over all third parties.

Sidewalk Lab’s believed that The Quayside Project would set a new model for responsible use of data through this independent Civic Data Trust. This proposed system however, contradicted Dr Cavoukian’s concerns by merely proposing a trade-off that only handed off the responsibility to enforce privacy rules to a Trust that left too much room for the potential exploitation of personal data.

Their proposal also added an additional concern on their position on the surveillance and privacy of what Sidewalk Labs labelled ‘Urban Data.’ Sidewalk Lab’s held the opinion that this personal data that was collected in a physical place in a city, namely ‘Urban Data,’ was not mutually exclusive with “data created when individuals agree to provide information through a website, mobile phone, or paper document.” Instead the organization believed that it could be considered a pubic asset, where the extent to which it may be collected was new and different (Dawson, 2018), and one where meaningful consent prior to collection and use was hard, if not impossible, to obtain (Coop, 2019).

Sidewalk Lab’s proposition suggested that the creation of the Civic Data Trust and the use of RDIA’s would help to put into practice that Privacy by Design principles that ensure Transparency and the need for data to be de-identified by default. Additionally, the principle of a user centric design appeared to be met by the Trust requiring all companies to file a publicly available and reviewable assessment to the Trust to prove that the use of the ‘Urban Data’ had a ‘beneficial public purpose” and put public interest and privacy first. It’s view on the inability to obtain meaningful consent prior to collection from the organizations so called ‘Urban Data,’ was however in violation of many Dr Cavoukian’s principles, most directly that of a full lifecycle of privacy protection.

Despite Sidewalk Lab’s proposal that this Trust would meet certain Privacy by design principles, it’s initial refusal to force companies to de-identify collected personal data at the source, subsequent contradiction with Dr Cavoukian concerns and disturbing view on ‘Urban Data’, resulted in her resignation and as one would expect, raised some red flags. Shortly afterwards Dr Cavoukian joined the Toronto Waterfront and together they regained control of the project, reinstated the mandatory de-identification of data, eliminated Sidewalk’s Civic Data Trust as well as the term 'Urban Data,' and the Quayside Project seemed to be back on track to becoming Dr Cavoukian’s vision of the world’s first smart city of Privacy.

After Toronto’s Waterfront regained control of the project, Sidewalk made a move to “further cement it’s footprint in Toronto (Smith, 2019) through a letter of intent that would involve George Brown College in future projects relating to the Quayside project. The Vice President of Strategy and Innovation at George Brown shared that the decision was made to “collaborate on a broad range of projects intended to build community, enhance innovation and provide unique learning experiences” for the students at the college (Smith, 2019). With the recent change of control, and limited concrete information on how the project as a whole was moving forward, it was too early to say how the Quayside Projects collaboration with George Brown would have impacted the College. However if the project had gone ahead with Toronto’s Waterfront in control and the principles of Dr Cavoukian’s Privacy by Design fully implemented, one can only imagine what it could have meant for the Colleges position at the forefront of the future of sustainability and technology, it’s part in forming the first smart city of privacy and the possibilities for growth and innovation that the students and staff of George Brown College could have been in the middle of.

Unfortunately, Toronto’s smart city was not realized and Sidewalk Lab’s never got to see its vision come into form after it abruptly abandoned the Project shortly after the outbreak of the Corona Virus. Despite the organizations attempt to pin the projects abandonment on the effects of the Pandemic, the tension and privacy concerns that had followed Sidewalk’s proposal from its birth in 2017 cannot be discounted. The CEO of Sidewalk Labs disclosed in an article with The Guardian (Cecco, 2020), that it was the economic uncertainty brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic that resulted in the disappointing closure of the Quayside project. Stating that it had "become too difficult to make the 12-acre project financially viable without sacrificing core parts of the plan" that they had developed. Sidewalk however had far bigger problems on their hands before the Pandemic settled in. With delays and taxation questions raised alongside fast-growing tension and concerns from influential voices over the proposed ‘smart city.’

It seems that the organizations ambition to upscale their vision and pitch the development of 190 acres compared to their initial proposal of twelve was the cherry on top of a growing and unstable mountain of unease, disagreements and apprehension by Dr Cavoukian, investors, Toronto’s Waterfront, and the public that eventually came crashing at Sidewalk Lab’s feet.



Autor(en)/Author(s): Tayla Talmage

Quelle/Source: Linked In, 12.11.2021

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