Civil Liberties Association follows through on threat to sue Toronto smart community

Toronto’s promised showcase lakefront smart neighborhood has faced a number of objections during public meetings and in news columns, largely worrying about possible privacy violations of a sensor-filled community. But the project hit another challenge on Tuesday, this time from an unexpected quarter.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association said it will go to court to sink Waterfront Toronto’s partnership with Sidewalk Labs for building an innovative digital neighborhood called Quayside as part of a lakefront revitalization project that would feature capturing data to enhance the lives of people living in the community.

“We are arguing that the agreements at the heart of the project are in violation of administrative and constitutional law, and are thus invalid,” Brenda McPhail the association’s director of privacy, technology and surveillance project, explained in a blog. “This project should not go forward as a result.”

“We are not scared of change or innovation. We are not anti-tech. We are firmly and unapologetically pro-rights and freedoms, and the way this project was conceived puts many of the rights people in Canada value at risk.”

According to the CBC, association executive director Michael Bryant was blunter at a press conference: “The laboratory of Sidewalk Labs, you see, is your community,” Bryant said at the news conference. “Scientists profit from your behavioural data. Canada, Toronto, you are the lab rats.”

The association will argue in court that the three levels of government behind Waterfront Toronto — the city, the province of Ontario and the federal government — had an obligation to create a digital data governance policy before coming to the agreement with Sidewalk Labs.

In February the province announced it will a digital strategy, and began public consultations.

In response Waterfront Toronto put out a statement saying it shares the association’s interest in ensuring robust protection for privacy at Quayside. “At this point Waterfront Toronto has not received a plan from Sidewalk Labs, its innovation and funding partner for Quayside. Therefore, none of the claims in the CCLA application can be assessed yet because we have not yet received or considered Sidewalk Labs’ Master Innovation and Development Plan.”

The association warned a month ago it would sue to stop the project.

Sidewalk Labs is part of Alphabet Inc., better known as the parent of Google. Waterfront Toronto — a partnership of the city, Ontario and federal governments — has signed a deal with Sidewalk to develop a master plan “as a testbed for the broader revitalization of Toronto’s waterfront.” That is expected shortly,

However, the Civil Liberties Assocation isn’t waiting. On Tuesday it filed a notice of application in an Ontario court suing Waterfront Toronto and the three levels of government.

“The problem is, the process that led to this project in the first place was fatally flawed and then presented to the public as a fait accompli, announced with fanfare by the Prime Minister, then Premier, and Mayor,” McPhail said in her blog.

“The problem is, the last year and a half of consultations haven’t been asking whether Torontonians want Google’s sister company, Sidewalk Labs, to create a sensor-laden “test bed” on the Waterfront, either in the Quayside neighbourhood or ultimately across the Portlands. They have just been discussing what it should look like and promising us it will be awesome.

“The problem is, we increasingly realize comprehensive data collection that permits granular monitoring of people’s activities and behaviour online is harming individuals and groups, infringing human rights, and diminishing human autonomy. So why on earth would we think it’s a good idea to import that big data model into our city streets by embedding multiple kinds of surveillance technologies into our infrastructure?  A city built “from the internet up” sounds more like a threat than a promise.”

The Quayside project has increasingly faced opposition from privacy advocates in part because it isn’t clear how much data will be collected and by who. Initially, Sidewalk Labs suggested it would fill that role. But under pressure last October it proposed an independent Civic Data Trust be created to approve and control the collection and use of data within the community. Under the proposal, Sidewalk said the trust would, “as a default, make de-identified data freely and publicly accessible to other companies or researchers.”

(This article has been updated from the original to include the Civil Liberties Association argument that the governments should have created a digital data policy before making an agreement with Sidewalk Labs)

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Howard Solomon
Howard Solomon
Currently a freelance writer, I'm the former editor of and Computing Canada. An IT journalist since 1997, I've written for several of ITWC's sister publications including and Computer Dealer News. Before that I was a staff reporter at the Calgary Herald and the Brampton (Ont.) Daily Times. I can be reached at hsolomon [@]

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