New deal with Sidewalk Labs a huge win, says Waterfront Toronto’s privacy consultant

Earlier this week Waterfront Toronto’s privacy consultant Ann Cavoukian was shocked to find out about a confidential Sidewalk Labs document from 2016 that highlighted the Google-affiliated development company’s original plans for Toronto’s eastern waterfront.

The document, also known as the “yellow book” according to reporting from the Globe and Mail, included plans – which predated Sidewalk’s relationship with Toronto by more than a year – that would have given Sidewalk the ability to track people’s movements and even levy its own property taxes.

“It blew me away…I was never aware of it, and I was disturbed by it so much because some people thought I knew about it,” Ann Cavoukian told IT World Canada, alluding to her exit as Sidewalk’s privacy consultant in October 2018 when she found out that the organization wasn’t going to force companies to de-identify collected personal information at the source. She joined Waterfront Toronto shortly after. “I said ‘how could I have known about it? I quit for far less’. Had I known about it I wouldn’t have even participated in this project.”

As a result, Cavoukian said she was nervous about the negotiations this week between Sidewalk and the board of Waterfront Toronto. The two sides had until Oct. 31 to agree on a plan for the 12-acre “beta site”.

Related: Sidewalk Labs decision to offload tough decisions on privacy to third party is wrong, says its former consultant

Thankfully, she said, Waterfront Toronto managed to regain control of the project in several key areas, including privacy.

“They specifically referenced de-identification at the source, which is something I had insisted upon when I worked for Sidewalk Labs,” said Cavoukian.

This process is used to prevent a person’s identity from being connected with information gathered by the smart city’s chattering devices.

Sidewalk Labs had also originally proposed a civic “data trust” that would oversee the collection and storage of data obtained by sensors at Quayside. The data trust has been eliminated, as well as the term “urban data”, according to Stephen Diamond, chair of the Waterfront Toronto board of directors.

In June, Sidewalk released its Master Innovation and Development Plan (MIDP), which described urban data as “both personal information and information collected in a physical space in the city, where meaningful consent prior to collection and use is hard, if not impossible, to obtain.”

In an open letter, Diamond wrote that Sidewalk “listened to our concerns, and those of the public” and that in early 2020 the public will have “more opportunities to have its say and inform the evaluation and any subsequent decisions by Waterfront Toronto and its board.”

Diamond penned an open letter in June outlining multiple concerns about Sidewalk’s MIDP, which was released shortly before.

And while the new agreement is a positive step forward for the project, Diamond emphasized the process is far from over.

“This is not a done deal,” he wrote.

The latest agreement means a decision about whether to move forward with the MIDP will be made by March 31, 2020 by Waterfront Toronto’s Board.

But Cavoukian said having this deal in place now is a powerful signal for other jurisdictions in Canada pursuing their own smart city projects.

“There has never been as heightened concern over privacy as there is now,” she said.

Ninety-two per cent of Canadians say they have some level of concern about the protection of their privacy. Specifically, 37 per cent are extremely concern, 20 per cent are concerned, and 35 per cent are somewhat concerned, according to a recent survey conducted by the privacy commissioner’s office.

“If you don’t embed privacy by design proactively, it will be too late once the technology is in place and the design of the project has matured,” said Cavoukian. “Canada could be a leader on this.”

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Alex Coop
Alex Coop
Former Editorial Director for IT World Canada and its sister publications.

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