Sidewalk Toronto looks a lot like another Internet gatekeeper

Sidewalk Toronto will let you kayak right up to your “smart” condo

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Last week, I attended a public lecture given by Andrew Clement, professor emeritus at the U of T Faculty of Information, and longtime advocate for the public interest in the digital life. His subject was the Sidewalk Toronto project, known as Quayside — aimed at building an honest-to-goodness Smart City on a 12-acre parcel of land on Toronto’s waterfront.

The project is controversial, not surprising since it’s the brainchild of Sidewalk Labs (SWL) — in turn the brainchild of Alphabet and “sibling” of Google. SWL isn’t an ISP and Google isn’t readying one of its Google Fiber deployments up here. Still, SWL is clearly emerging as the kind of gatekeeper that inspires mistrust and suspicion — just like the incumbents who control our Internet access.

Privacy, meet information asymmetry

Clement provided a balanced but highly critical account of how Google and Waterfront Toronto got us into what promises to be a hot public policy mess. He did so by presenting what is known about the project, then asking a lot of challenging questions. Many were related to the issues of jurisdiction, ownership, control and, most importantly, how the public will actually benefit from the deal while having their, our, welfare protected. Prof. Clement was particularly concerned about the delicate topic of the risks Quayside might unleash on privacy — already a lively part of the debate in the media.

That theme got me to thinking about one of my favorite hobby horses: how do we help people better understand the digital world we live in, and ensure they have the information they need to be safe and prosperous online? Nobody said that would be easy. Many people are reluctant to dive into technical complexities, for all the obvious reasons, even when their personal welfare is at stake.

For their part, the big gatekeepers are just as reluctant to part with any information that might actually benefit their users, even as they scoop up every last detail about our lives. Make no mistake — this is an outlook shared by both the incumbent ISPs and the edge providers whose misdeeds we have to read about ad nauseam. Including Google. That’s what economists call information asymmetry — an imbalance in what each side knows that leads to an imbalance in power, much like your relationship with Bell or Facebook.

Prof. Clement was naturally adamant that public consultations around projects like Quayside must be, well, truly public — not the captive creature of experts, well-meaning or otherwise. That goal has to face the difficulties inherent in helping local citizens understand such a complex project — and getting them interested enough to participate in the consultations. It doesn’t help that the project sponsors also seem to be evading an open discussion about exactly what kinds of information will be collected from public users of the development once it’s launched. Sound familiar?

One question we heard raised several times in the lecture was cui bono — who benefits? This project encourages us to ask an even broader question: what exactly are the putative benefits in the first place?

What’s so smart about the “smart” city?

As we sink deeper into the clutches of the Internet of Things, we’ve learned that things qualify as “smart” mostly thanks to having network connectivity. The concept of a smart fridge isn’t hard to grasp. It uses connectivity and sensors to tell you on the drive home you need milk. The technology involved isn’t particularly smart — what’s smart is going to the convenience store without having to make a separate trip. “Smart” on the IoT turns out to be just like the rest of our digital life: all about convenience.

Finally — you can order groceries without ever leaving your fridge

Smart cities aren’t nearly as straightforward. Prof. Clement screened a number of those ever-popular artist’s renderings of Toronto’s future. One of his pointed questions about them was: Where are the sensors? Digital sensors aren’t quite as sexy, or easy to render, as kayakers kayaking across the lake as they behold some of the architecture Toronto can look forward to, as in the image at the top of this page. (That image, by the way, accompanied a February op-ed in the Toronto Star by Dan Doctoroff, the CEO of Sidewalk Labs, in which he argues his group wasn’t “trying to do anything in secret.”)

Clement’s point was that the juice is in the digital devices — not spiffy buildings and imagined sidewalk scenes featuring happy pedestrians mingling with driverless cars. In other words, the kind of visual the press loves.

These devices will of course include high-resolution CCTV cameras, and other technology useful for what Google does best: surveillance. As one member of the audience asked, echoing the elusive sensors, are we supposed to see benefits in these artist renderings? Clement raised the compelling question on the flip side: what and where are the costs of having all these sensors deployed — especially when they aren’t visibly part of the marketing push to sell the project?

SWL’s marketing push may not qualify as misleading advertising. Until we get to the problem with the phones.

Where’s Sidewalk’s discussion of “external” data?

You can’t judge the risks inherent in a project of this scope by confining your questions to what’s on the table. As we heard in the lecture, the devil’s also apt to be lurking in the missing details — in this case, the conspicuous absence of any mention of what will happens to the countless “sensors” we’ll all be carrying around with us on strolls through Quayside — our smartphones.

The folks from Google/SWL have plenty to say in their pitches about data handling and privacy issues. As well they should. Take CCTV cameras. They’ve become notorious for encouraging the ever-expanding intrusions into our lives, from autocratic regimes like China to proud democracies like the United Kingdom. Google itself has also gained an unflattering reputation for its keen interest in using smartphones to track the location of users (and using its Sensorvault databank to store what it collects). The cameras tapped for this project are said to be capable of capturing millions of pixels at a rate of dozens of times per second.

So it’s not hard to see why we should be concerned that Google/SWL has so far had not a word to say in its Quayside materials about what will happen to the outpouring of data from our phones — what Clement refers to as “external” data, i.e. external to the acknowledged data-gathering from the Quayside digital infrastructure itself.

You can just imagine the dollar signs flying in thick clouds around the Alphabet meeting rooms when the execs start adding up the value of all that phone data combined with the “internal” Quayside data — all ripe for potential replication in dozens of other cities whose business and political leaders see the future as “smart.” The Smart City concept may be the new urban boondoggle for the 21st century — ready to take up the slack from those billion-dollar sports complexes that were built for the fans, not the luxury executive boxes, and would never need support from the public purse, and so on.

Then along came those pesky civil libertarians

The next big step in this adventure is scheduled for sometime this summer — release of the Master Innovation Development Plan (MIDP), yes, with the inevitable promise of “innovation,” a concept everbody loves and nobody ever bothers to dissect. In any case, the well-laid plans may have to be rescheduled now…

Whatever mass of messy details I’ve been glossing over here, we’re about to get a much more focused and consequential debate on the issues thanks to the lawsuit filed two weeks ago by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA: pdf posted here). Despite the obvious first thought, the CCLA is not suing Google or SWL, but officials representing our three levels of government (the respondents) — municipal, provincial and federal — as all three have had a hand in the approvals that got Quayside to this point.

As I understand the logic, this move notifies the respondents that the CCLA (and a private citizen) have filed an application with Ontario’s Divisional Court to have it review the agreements made as part of the Sidewalk deal and declare them null and void. The various parties called on the judicial carpet would be prohibited from proceeding with the project — not merely, as you might anticipate, because they have “violated Canadians’ personal and collective privacy rights” under provisions of the Charter (p.2).

The applicants also claim that, in approving the Framework Agreement and Plan Development Agreement, the respondents were acting ultra vires — beyond their statutory authority. The nexus seems to be that the respondent governments abdicated their duty to develop a meaningful digital data governance policy (p.4). Here the applicants are echoing the resignation last fall of long-time privacy advocate, and former Ontario privacy commissioner, Ann Cavoukian, over what she saw as the project’s betrayal of the “privacy by design” principle.

The application pulls no punches about the privacy grounds for the suit:

“This smart city will integrate a digital layer of sensors and detection devices into the physical infrastructure to capture and collect personal data from public spaces. The Quayside Agreements empower Sidewalk Labs and others to effect historically unprecedented, non-consensual, inappropriate mass-capture surveillance and commoditization of personal data of individuals who live, work in or visit Quayside” (p.3).

The application characterizes Sidewalk Labs’ sibling — Google — as “a market dominant colossus that harvests personal data and monetizes that data by mining it, packaging it and selling it to third parties” (p.6). The Google team prefers to describe Quayside as “the world’s first urban district planned and executed at scale from the Internet up” (p.7).

Are SWL, Google et al. innocent till proven guilty?

Google may live to regret tying its role as urban developer so closely to its better-known role as King of the Internet, or words to that effect. Let me put it this way. A year ago, tech journalist Chris Smith wrote a piece for BRG titled “If you thought Facebook’s data collection is scary, wait until you check your Google account.”

Sure, this was before Facebook started getting into trouble for a relentless series of privacy violations, kicked off by Cambridge Analytica. Keep in mind, however, that Smith is talking about all the unseemly activities that are part of Google’s ongoing business — not slipups like lousy data storage and misleading user agreements. Smith’s piece outlines some of the startling findings from an experiment conducted by a very curious and thorough social media user (one Dylan Curran):

  • His Google data dump was 9 times bigger than his Facebook dump;
  • Google stored his location every time he turned on his phone, even measuring how long he took to get from one location to another;
  • His search history included every single item he ever looked at, including images and websites (like The Pirate Bay, so beware, pirates) — plus every Google Ad he’d ever viewed or clicked on, every app he’d ever launched or used and when he used it, and every app he’d ever installed or simply searched for;
  • It stored his entire YouTube history — and, as he notes, Google’s algorithms are very clever at using that data to infer e.g. whether you’re going to be a parent soon or whether you’re anorexic or suicidal;
  • It stored his entire Google Drive history, including sensitive files he had explicitly deleted, along with all his emails, including deleted messages and spam.

The list goes on and on, but you get the idea. Somehow “feeling lucky” no longer seems to fit the Google ethos.

My point is two-fold. First, whatever the legal niceties of the CCLA lawsuit, it seems less than prudent to give Sidewalk Labs, or any of the Google siblings, the benefit of the doubt — at least outside of the courtroom.

Second, whatever comes of the suit — and remember, the wheels of justice turn slowly — everyone knows we already have a huge problem on our hands, whatever fate may befall Quayside.

So what do we do next — apart from counting on the continuing diligence of public interest advocates like Prof. Clement, Ann Cavoukian and the CCLA?

D.E.