Google’s smart city project: A privacy hot button

The Quayside project in Toronto has courted more controversy than excitement.
Digital freedomPrivacy news
5 mins
An illustration of the CN Tower, in Google colors.

This post was originally published on December 12, 2019. Check out the previous post in this series: What are smart cities?

In 2017, when Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs announced Quayside, a project in partnership with the City of Toronto, the event attracted a wave of publicity and excited proclamations of urban spaces reimagined by the power of the internet.

The partnership was unveiled by no less than Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who said that “the announcement is about creating a new type of neighbourhood that puts people first,” and that he expects Quayside to eventually be a “thriving hub for innovation and a community for tens of thousands of people to live, work, and play.”

At the time, the collaboration seemed to herald Toronto’s desire to firmly establish itself as a major North American technology hub. Sidewalk Labs was granted several acres of prime waterfront real estate, with the expectation that it would eventually invest up to 1 billion CAD in the project, building things like heated bike lanes, internet-connected traffic signals, and underground garbage disposal.

Privacy experts push back on Quayside

If the Canadian government and Alphabet thought that the project would be met with almost universal adulation, with citizens cheering on a future where cameras and internet-connected devices would track and analyze almost every aspect of their behavior, they were in for a nasty surprise.

Quayside has been rocked by one controversy after another ever since the project got off the ground.

In a scathing editorial just a couple of months after the deal, UK publication The Guardian wrote, “Much as [Google/Alphabet] is presently a gatekeeper for almost all of the internet that is not on Facebook, and so able to extract rents from any company that wants to be seen there, it would become the gatekeeper for those parts of the physical world that it controlled.”

It added that the extreme wealth accumulated by Silicon Valley has “made life worse for those not at the top of the heap; housing becomes unaffordable, public transport and schooling are neglected; the city becomes a playground for the few and not the many.”

Sidewalk Labs chose to deflect data tracking concerns by pointing to the hiring of privacy expert Ann Cavoukian, whose role was to ensure that Alphabet wouldn’t engage in any invasive practices.

Alphabet stay vague about city tracking and monitoring

But Cavoukian resigned less than a year into the project, claiming that she was kept in the dark about the extent of data tracking and monitoring. Executives assured her that all data collected would be wiped and unidentifiable but she later learned that third parties could access identifiable information along the waterfront.

“I imagined us creating a Smart City of Privacy, as opposed to a Smart City of Surveillance,” she wrote in her resignation letter, adding that her exit from the project was meant to “send a strong statement” about its lack of privacy.

There were other dissenting voices, too.

Saadia Muzaffar, the founder of TechGirls Canada and a member of the Waterfront Toronto Digital Strategy Advisory Panel, stepped down from her role a month before Cavoukian did, with similar objections about the lack of transparency and potential breaches of privacy.

A massive blow to Quayside’s ambitions came in the form of dissent from Jim Balsillie, former chairman of BlackBerry, one of Canada’s most recognized technology companies, who wrote that he viewed the project as “a colonizing experiment in surveillance capitalism attempting to bulldoze important urban, civic and political issues.”

“If we are to build viable digital cities for the benefit of Canadian citizens, we will need transparency and accountability between the government and its citizens, not a secret deal between an unelected, rogue public corporation and a foreign multinational in the business of mass surveillance,” he said.

The Waterfront Toronto project was also sued earlier this year by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, saying that the government had “sold out” the constitutional rights to freedom of surveillance and invited the giants of behavioral data collection to set up shop.

Michael Bryant, CCLA executive director and general counsel, stated: “These agreements are contrary to administrative and constitutional law, and set a terrible precedent for the rest of this country.”

Can Alphabet get it together?

Amid growing public criticism and a real threat that the project could be shelved entirely, Sidewalk Labs released the Digital Innovation Appendix, a 483-page report to promote transparency and address concerns.

The report specifically tackles data privacy concerns, among other issues, with the authors of the publication stating “we believe that a higher standard of data governance in cities is possible, and that the public should know how and why data is being collected and used in streets and public spaces.”

And in a vote held a few weeks ago to decide the future of the project, the City of Toronto said it would continue with the project after Sidewalk Labs made necessary changes to assuage public worries.

Stephen Diamond, chair of the Waterfront Toronto Board of Directors, explained that the members had reached alignment on the issues they had with Sidewalk Labs, cautioning however that “this is not a done deal.”

The fact of the matter is that it’s been over two years since Trudeau and Larry Page packaged the deal as a cure to all of Toronto’s urban problems: Traffic congestion, efficient transport, and connectivity. But since the announcement, we’ve seen little to no actual progress on the ground, with a litany of complaints, high-profile resignations, and eerie visions of a future watched by a panopticon.

Torontonians remain unconvinced

Toronto’s residents aren’t buying into the hype. It’s already one of the most expensive cities in the world, so Alphabet’s declaration of building affordable housing is met with considerable skepticism. But even if it were to pull off this miraculous feat (apparently using mass timber is the secret sauce), concerns about cameras and privacy will persist.

Even more unclear are the metrics of success. What does a “successful” Quayside project even mean? Maybe most people don’t want more devices in the public realm; anyone ever thought of asking them?

Yes, the deal is going ahead for now. But what it might actually look like in the future is anyone’s guess.

I like to think about the impact that the internet has on humanity. In my free time, I'm wolfing down pasta.