Did a Sidewalk Labs ‘misunderstanding’ about privacy lead to Cavoukian’s resignation?

When internationally-known privacy expert Ann Cavoukian resigned last week as a consultant to Sidewalk Labs’ planned multi-million dollar Toronto lakefront smart-city project it made headlines around the world.

Sidewalk Labs, a division of Google’s parent Alphabet Inc, is the innovation and funding partner for the neighborhood to be called Quayside, which promises to bring “new technology to address big urban challenges and improve quality of life.” It is overseen by Waterfront Toronto, an independent agency representing three levels of government with development control over the 12-acre Quayside community.

But Cavoukian, expert-in-residence at Ryerson University’s Privacy By Design Centre of Excellence, was caught off guard last Thursday by a comment from a Sidewalk Labs official, who said it couldn’t promise all data used in the project would be de-identified of personal markers.

Sidewalk promises all data it collects from its sensors will be anonymized. However, a proposed Civic Data Trust, which would approve and control the collection of Quayside data and hold it for use by anyone, would — if approved — have the final say. And at that meeting last week Sidewalk said it would only encourage the trust to de-identify data as it is collected. (see also this Sidewalk Labs blog)

That wasn’t good enough for Cavoukian, who had insisted to Sidewalk for a year that all Quayside data has to be anonymized the second it is collected. That way the data doesn’t need user consent to be collected.

”When the meeting finished I just felt I had no choice but to resign,” she said in an interview, “because this isn’t something you can say ‘Some people can de-identify, others can’t. Identifiable data is a treasure trove. Everybody wants that.

“I felt I had to resign because I had to make a statement. And it’s not just Sidewalk Labs. This is Waterfront Toronto. I have said to them, ‘You have to lay down the law. You are the guys who are going to be hiring Sidewalk Labs, allowing other parties to join in. You have to lay down the law that all personal data has to be de-identified at source, full stop.”

However, Chantal Bernier, Waterfront Toronto’s privacy advisor, who herself is an expert in the field, says Sidewalk Labs’ statement may have come from a question it didn’t understand. She was listening in to the meeting by teleconference.

“I took it as … there was a misunderstanding,” Bernier, former interim privacy commission of Canada, now with the Dentons Canada LLP law firm in Ottawa, said in an interview. “I think what Sidewalk Labs was saying was, ‘We can’t take responsibility for anybody else who wants to independently come in [with their own data]. The other interpretation is if Sidewalk Labs did provide sub-contractors access [to its data] they would be, by Canadian law, accountable for how those suppliers protect privacy.

“I have a feeling they didn’t understand that was the question put to them. I think they may have thought the question was, ‘Well, what about anybody else [collecting data]?’ and they said, ‘We don’t know what anybody else would do.’ But if it is part of the Quayside project and it is part of the digital platform Sidewalk Labs provides, then there is a supply chain that absolutely comes under privacy law, creating a continuum of obligation of privacy protection, from the contractor through the suppliers.”

*Editor’s note — In response to this story, Cavoukian commented on Twitter that she wants Waterfront Toronto to require that all parties involved in the project de-identify personally identifiable information a the source.



Still, Bernier admitted she was disappointed at Cavoukian’s resignation because “we are truly at the very beginning, and as I said to her we cannot pass judgment or conclusions in any fashion at this point. Our effort is so focused on getting privacy as a foundation of this project that I would have liked to have her with me to continue the work.”

Decisions on what data and how it will be collected still have to be decided, she stressed. “We’re still working this out.” For example, some data may be ambient and not personalized (for example, a sensor counting how many people crossing an intersection at a particular time), ambient and personalized (for example, images captured by surveillance cameras. However, such data is protected by provincial or federal privacy laws and guidelines. On the other hand, those laws don’t mandate de-identifying data) or data collected through individual action (for example, downloading a traffic information app and the user has to consent to location services being turned on).

So, Bernier was asked, was Cavoukian’s resignation premature? “I wouldn’t say that because a resignation corresponds to a person’s personal position,” Bernier replied. “Ann had reached a personal position and I think she showed her integrity in saying, ‘I was not comfortable going on.’ Where I wouldn’t go is to draw from her resignation is a judgment on the project.”

The proposed data trust

As for the proposed independent Civic Data Trust, announced by Sidewalk Labs last week, it would approve and control the collection and use of data collected within Quayside, including that by Sidewalk Labs. Under the proposal, Sidewalk said the trust would, “as a default, make de-identified data freely and publicly accessible to other companies or researchers.”

“The Trust would consider applications to collect Urban Data that involves personal information (e.g. CCTV cameras) or proposals to collect Urban Data on a proprietary or commercial basis,” says the proposal, which would have to be approved by Waterfront Toronto’s digital strategy advisory panel and the agency itself.

Asked to comment on Cavoukian’s resignation, a Sidewalk Labs spokesman referred to a statement already issued:
“At last week’s meeting of the Waterfront Toronto’s Digital Strategy Advisory Panel, it became clear that Sidewalk Labs would play a more limited role in near-term discussions about a data governance framework at Quayside. Sidewalk Labs has committed to implement, as a company, the principles of Privacy by Design. Though that question is settled, the question of whether other companies involved in the Quayside project would be required to do so is unlikely to be worked out soon, and may be out of Sidewalk Labs’ hands.”

Meanwhile, Cavoukian will meet next week with Kristina Verner, Waterfront Toronto’s vice-president of innovation.

Asked if Cavoukian’s resignation will have an impact on Quayside’s reputation, Bernier said no. The goal of the project is to embed data privacy in the community, she said.

Cavoukian’s resignation comes after the departure by Waterfront Toronto board member Julie Di Lorenzo, who complained Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs don’t communicate enough with the public, and digital strategy advisors Saadia Mufaffar and John Ruffolo.

“The most recent roundtable in August displayed a blatant disregard for resident concerns about data and digital infrastructure,” Mufaffar, an entrepreneur, was quoted as saying. “Time was spent instead talking about buildings made out of wood and the width of one-way streets, things no one has contested or expressed material concern for in this entire process.”

At the time of his departure Ruffolo was CEO of OMERS Ventures, the venture division of one of Canada’s largest pension funds. He was quoted as saying he left over the confidentiality agreement he and members of the advisory committee were asked to sign.

Would you recommend this article?


Thanks for taking the time to let us know what you think of this article!
We'd love to hear your opinion about this or any other story you read in our publication.

Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

Featured Download

Howard Solomon
Howard Solomon
Currently a freelance writer, I'm the former editor of ITWorldCanada.com and Computing Canada. An IT journalist since 1997, I've written for several of ITWC's sister publications including ITBusiness.ca 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 [@] soloreporter.com

Related Tech News

Our experienced team of journalists and bloggers bring you engaging in-depth interviews, videos and content targeted to IT professionals and line-of-business executives.

Featured Reads